How Obama wins the election: the economy, stupid, and everything else
The opinions expressed are his own.
Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, and the entire Republican presidential field before them, have enjoyed painting Barack Obama as a European-style socialist, an apologizer, an appeaser, a president who is ceding America‚Äôs place in the world. Their stump speeches and debate soundbites seem to always end with some variety of the phrase, ‚Äúwhen I‚Äôm your president, I‚Äôll make America great again.‚ÄĚ It would seem the nation is hungry for that kind of leadership; after all, polls now say that Obama‚Äôs job approval ratings are worse than Carter‚Äôs at the same point in his term. The game clock would seem to be running down on his re-election hopes. But what if it turns out we‚Äôve been reading the scoreboard wrong, and Team Obama already has the lead? What if, by the time Americans get to vote, less than a year from now, America is already great again?
Coming off the heels of a nasty recession and horrible intertwined crises in banking, housing and economic confidence, every decision President Obama and his team made on the country‚Äôs way forward has come under intense scrutiny. Inevitably, the left has called some decisions, like the smaller-than-hoped-for size of his stimulus bill, weak sauce. The right has decried everything this administration did, as with health care reform, as lurching us towards socialism. Even Rockefeller Republicans have changed their spots in order to make libertarian arguments, as when Mitt Romney argued in the New York Times that the auto-industry bailout was wrong and Detroit should have been allowed to go broke.
One shouldn‚Äôt feel bad for Obama — this kind of scrutiny comes with the job, after all. But the criticism his administration has endured from all sides has seemed particularly craven, perhaps because the stakes have been so very high these past few years. And yet, the political capital invested in his centrist, negotiated policies are now paying dividends. Perhaps Bill Clinton was a smoother operator, but it‚Äôs beginning to look a lot like Obama‚Äôs triangulation of policy, politics and the press is working, and that may deliver him to a political comeback and a 1996-style election victory.
Take the economy: Unemployment numbers are still bad, but they are improving, reaching levels not seen since the very start of the crisis. GDP growth has been anemic but it long ago stopped contracting, as it was when Obama first took office, thanks to effects of the global financial crisis and US credit crunch. Asset management firm BlackRock, meanwhile, predicts that GDP growth will increase in the last quarter, hitting the 3% mark that puts the economy beyond ‚Äútreading water‚ÄĚ territory into real growth that companies large and small will invest in, both in terms of equipment and real estate upgrades, and new hiring. Macroeconomic Advisors puts the figure at 3.7%.
The GOP would love to challenge Obama on foreign policy, but here he is nearly unimpeachable. He‚Äôs steadfastly refused to commit U.S. resources to overseas adventures, resisting the ‚Äúnation-building‚ÄĚ that candidate George W. Bush had promised to not engage in. He corrected the Bush-era excesses by pulling out of Iraq and announcing a timetable to withdraw from Afghanistan. If a president John McCain had used drone strikes as much as Obama did, Republicans everywhere would be crowing about the president‚Äôs use of ‚Äúsmart power‚ÄĚ ¬†in the War on Terror.
As Todd Purdum recently explained in Vanity Fair, in an article about George Kennan and his disillusionment with our country‚Äôs military-driven growth and global-policeman interventionist foreign policy stance, there should never have been anything inevitable about the U.S. jumping into global hot spots just because it could. Obama is perhaps the only president in the last fifty years to successfully resist committing huge numbers of American lives and treasure to an overseas engagement. With that accomplishment, he joins only Dwight Eisenhower, who ended the Korean War, if we go back a little further. And yet, when asked Thursday at a press conference if he was engaging in a policy of appeasement with Iran, he smartly suggested that the reporter ‚Äúask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaida leaders who have been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement. Or whoever is left out there, ask them about that.‚ÄĚ The GOP may try to pin Obama on foreign policy, but when he starts defending his record in such stark terms, it‚Äôs pretty easy to see how this is a losing fight.
If the economy rebounds even partly, and his foreign policy continues to be effective, what can the Republicans pin on Obama? The birth certificate is public and the country has grown comfortable, or at least used to, seeing him on the world stage. The ‚Äúotherness‚ÄĚ that plagued him during the early days of his presidency has been all but eradicated. The incumbent advantage will begin to manifest itself as the GOP nominee struggles to present a vision for America that differs significantly from where we already are. With social issues always being marginalized in general elections (and with Rick Perry proving even the GOP primary season is barely hospitable to his anti-gay TV spots), it‚Äôs becoming clear that no credible alternative narrative to the Obama era is going to emerge from this Republican party or its Tea Party wing.
Finally, Obama seems to have learned perhaps his most difficult lesson: how to be the master of Congress. He‚Äôs taking credit for good ideas and pointing fingers at the failures, while appearing to the public as engaged but above the fray. He learned all the lessons of the debt ceiling debacle in time to benefit rather than suffer from the super committee‚Äôs failure. He‚Äôs dared congressional Republicans to attack his middle-class populism by wearing the cloak of a Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, when talking about it. And if Congress fails to pass the payroll tax extension before its December recess, the administration will surely paint its Republican leaders as not just do-nothings, but hypocrites to boot.
Come general-election season, Obama should be able to describe his first term as one in which: he took the right steps on the economy which, due to simple outside lag time, are just now paying off; he avoided military entanglements while keeping the country safe and hunting down terrorists; and he stared down the extreme wings of both parties in order to maintain a centrist course, while also increasing health care coverage for millions of Americans. In short, whereas it was once hard to see how the president could possibly win a second term, it‚Äôs now difficult to understand how he could lose.
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama listens to former U.S. President Bill Clinton speak about the economy during a tour of an energy-efficient office building renovation near the White House in Washington December 2, 2011.¬†REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.