Team Blog

Why Obama wins and loses; and why to be happy either way

Charisma and charm: President Barack Obama shares a beer with supporters at the Iowa State Fair last month. EPA/Steve Pope

There are ten weeks until Americans vote for the next president. Polling averages suggest a very narrow victory for the incumbent, Barack Obama, but predictions fall within the margin of error. Most presidents are re-elected; this one may not be. Herewith, some thoughts on how and why Obama might win and lose and reasons to be optimistic either way.

Reasons Obama might win

  1. He’s more FDR than Jimmy Carter. Franklin Roosevelt, the man every Democrat president seeks to emulate and rearticulate, created no serious opponent or coalition of opponents during his twelve years in office (1933-45). He was hated, certainly, but ineffectively by his Republican opponents. Obama has been no FDR but his political foes, like Roosevelt’s, have been more noisy and fractious than patience and united. The diversity of GOP thinking – from “birthers” to pragmatists – should allow a more united Democrat party to paint Obama as a sane alternative.

  2. Osama bin Laden is dead. Despite widely-held assumptions that Obama would be an apologist-in-chief, having imbibed anti-American post-colonialism in his youth, he has out-Bushed Bush when it comes to killing terrorists. “W” was condemned for torturing Jihadists. Obama has avoided this charge by killing them instead. This apparently “soft-power” president used more Drones and killed more terrorists thereby in his first 12 months in office than George W. Bush did in seven years. He invaded a Muslim country (Libya) only unlike Bush (in Iraq) did so effectively, cheaply, and quickly. He has kept Guantanamo Bay open.

  3. His opponent is a modern-day Alf Landon. The hapless Kansan was trounced by FDR in 1936. A decent though awkward businessman (in banking and then oil), Landon was unable to channel growing disillusionment with Roosevelt’s New Deal. Romney had a good convention in Tampa but not a transformative one. He does not inspire. He is a little dull: he has a tin ear. The charisma of the incumbent (his likeability), which even his detractors revile, should be enough to see him past the post. Romney’s Mormonism is not a contributory factor (polling suggests people don’t care) but it is not a helpful one either. He is also from Massachusetts and no leader from that state has won the presidency since JFK (remember the fate of Mike Dukakis and John Kerry).

Reasons Obama might lose

  1. He’s more Jimmy Carter than FDR. Only three presidents in the last eighty years have failed to be re-elected: Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush Sr. Obama uncomfortably resembles the latter two. Like the pious Georgian, Obama promised more than he could deliver. The moral revolution Carter presaged foundered on the rocks of the Iran Hostage Crisis, Soviet expansionism and domestic economic malaise. Obama’s may well do so on the rocks of the jobs crisis. If he emulates the fate of Bush Sr his one-term presidency will be remembered for some foreign policy success – Bush presided over the end of the Cold War, Obama over the Arab Spring – undone by an economic recession at home.

  2. Obamacare is unsaleable. With economic recession, housing collapse, and jobs crisis his immediate inheritance from Bush Jr, Obama expended great time and energy on a solution – government healthcare – that improved none of them. A minority of Americans have no health insurance; a majority of Americans do not see Obamacare as a solution to this state of affairs. Instead, Republicans have prospered on caricaturing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as a big government solution too far – despite Mitt Romney having delivered a version of it in Massachusetts.

  3. Harvard Law Review. Obama’s editing this while a student represents a thin executive resume, exposed when he stepped up to the most demanding CEO job in the world. An Alf Landon this time round might prove preferable, i.e., Americans will smile on a man who has actually run something, fired and hired people, and achieved great wealth through business acumen. Obama’s remarkable life story, after four years of mediocre returns, has much less appeal.

Reasons to be cheerful either way

  1. Obama’s failure will be his greatest success. To fail for the reasons many presidents do – from an unreceptive Congress to a hostile foreign world – will demonstrate a political system that is impartial, colour-blind, and ambivalent about the personal characteristics and biographies (remarkable or otherwise) of its presidents. To fail despite rather than because of who he is will be refreshing.

  2. There is at least a debate about government taking place. There are two sides (each containing multiple wings) that are arguing about how far government should be allowed to effect human progress. Few other liberal democracies are capable of such a discourse. Americans fought a war over slavery; they continue to divide over abortion. A system incapable of debating how far government should intrude on such issues is not one we should welcome.

This blog will be exploring these themes – testing these arguments – as the most exacting test of electoral politics in the world unfolds over the next two months.