Obama’s Steep Climb to Re-election

Click photo to download. Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of “Second Thought: a U.S.-Israel Initiative.”
Click photo to download. Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of “Second Thought: a U.S.-Israel Initiative.”

Irrespective of the uninspiring slate of Republican presidential candidates, U.S. President Barack Obama faces a steep uphill re-election battle.

The predicament of Obama’s presidency was highlighted during its best possible week— following the May 2, 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden—which produced a meager, soft and short-term bonus of 6 percent in his approval rating, bouncing Obama to 52 percent, before he slid back down to 40 percent in the weeks after the event.

On Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2009, Obama was a “coattail president” with a 69 percent approval rating. By Nov. 13, 2011, he had collapsed to an “anchor-chained president,” with 43 percent approval, according to Gallup polls.

Compared with the approval ratings of recent U.S. presidents in the November of their third year in office, Obama is lagging behind, as did one-term president Jimmy Carter. Here are the numbers for past presidents at this point in their terms: George W. Bush (52 percent), Clinton (53 percent), George H. W. Bush (55 percent), Reagan (53 percent), Carter (40 percent), Nixon (49 percent), JFK (58 percent) and Eisenhower (78 percent). In fact, Obama’s numbers are more concerning than those of non-elected former President Gerald Ford, who zoomed to 71percent when he replaced would-be impeached President Richard Nixon, then crashed to 50 percent upon pardoning Nixon, and dropped further to 47 percent following the 1974 midterm election, remaining at 45-50 percent until his defeat in the November 1976 election.

Notwithstanding Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize and a 63 percent approval rating on his ability to fight terrorism, a victory in November 2012 depends, almost entirely, on his own domestic track record, rather than his Republican challenger’s track record. An Obama victory would require that the current economic and political landscape in the U.S. be dramatically altered, or voters receiving an “October Surprise.” Barring an exceptionally qualified (or exceptionally disqualified) challenger, re-election campaigns are the incumbent president’s to win (or to lose).

While the power of incumbency has provided sufficient tailwind for the re-election of 21 U.S. presidents, three presidents since 1932 have lost a second term bid. They were bogged down by a series of failures and/or mishaps, but none of them were facing problems nearly as dramatic as those confronting Obama.

George H. W. Bush lost his 1992 re-election campaign despite his glamorous foreign policy posture, the collapse of the USSR during his term and the astounding 88 percent approval rating he had following the 1991 Gulf War. He lost to Bill Clinton, who at the time was a largely unknown governor of a small state, all because of an economic recession—including a 7 percent unemployment rate and a $290 billion deficit (4.7 percent of GDP)—and the broken pledge of “read my lips, no new taxes,” the effective Clinton campaign slogan of “it’s the economy stupid,” the rising violence in inner cities and Bush’s well-known preference of international, over domestic, issues.

Jimmy Carter lost his 1980 re-election campaign to Ronald Reagan, whose qualifications were doubtful at best. Carter lost, regardless of his image as a global peacemaker, due to an economic slowdown that was intensified by a global energy crisis, surging inflation and interest rates, and a general sense of national despair and pessimism. All of these were fueled by Carter’s own leadership style and the humiliating hostage-takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Gerald Ford lost the 1976 re-election campaign to “Jimmy Who?” (Carter), who was, at the time, a semi-anonymous governor of a southern state. Ford lost despite the fact that he ended the Vietnam War and advanced détente with the USSR and China. He lost because he pardoned Nixon, the adverse effects of Nixon-induced national trauma, the depressed economy, high inflation and chronic energy shortages.

Just like these three one-termers during their fourth year, Obama has no lock on his re-election.

In 2008, Obama, as a candidate, ran as a centrist, and therefore carried the independent sector, which is the most critical voting bloc—about a third of the constituents. In 2008, he was supported by 62 percent of independents, compared with 39 percent in November, 2011. While in 2008 Collin Powell and other moderate Republicans threw their support behind Obama, in 2011 he has been perceived as a liberal, with most constituents being at the center and right-of-center. Self-identified conservatives currently outnumber liberals 2:1 and most Democrats are not so liberal. In 2008, the turnout of young and African-American voters peaked as a result of high expectations of Obama.

In 2011, the turnout is expected to diminish to the lower, traditional levels, as a result of a peaked disappointment. In 2008, liberal constituents accounted for unprecedented numbers at the voting booths. In 2011, Gallup polls have documented the highest number of conservative voters since 1994, twice as many as the number of liberals, and exceeding the number of moderates.

In 2008, 78 percent of American Jews voted for Obama. In 2011, there is a growing disenchantment among the Jewish electorate with Obama’s policies, in general, and particularly with his policy toward Israel. The 2010 reapportionment has netted the “McCain States” 12 electorates, in addition to the pick-up of two electorates by Florida, which could switch-over to the Republican column, along with other “battleground” states such as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and even New Jersey, where Obama’s popularity is plunging.

Most importantly, “It’s the economy stupid!” No U.S. president has been re-elected, since 1960, with unemployment above 7.2 percent, especially when experiencing a “U-shaped” economic meltdown, a paralyzing sense of uncertainty, the looming threat of a double-dip recession, a collapse of the housing market, a staggering price of gasoline, high inflation and interest rates, a shaky stock market, no real GDP growth, and an all-time high debt which has approached the GDP.

Democrats on Capitol Hill constitute an effective barometer of Obama’s electoral fortunes. They are increasingly reluctant to support his initiatives, as they are apprehensive about a possible second round of their 2010 midterm devastation.

Irrespective of the aforementioned steep hurdles facing Obama on his path to re-election, he could still win next year, barring any additional dramatic developments before November 2012.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in Israel Hayom and is distributed with the permission of Yoram Ettinger.

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