Obama: America’s once and future president

Although most say Obama has no chance at a second term, there are many factors on his side that suggest he will win.

According to opinion polls, approval ratings of President Obama remain mired in the low 40s [GALLO/GETTY]

DOHA, QATAR – With one year to go until America’s presidential election there seems to be a consensus among its chattering class. Whoever will be the next president, it won’t be Barack Obama. Like most inevitabilities concerning the future of American politics, this one needs to be treated with caution.

Admittedly the obstacles in the path of President Obama’s re-election appear formidable. His standing in opinion polls seems stuck in the low 40s, which in a two-party election makes him a likely loser. Nor has either the economy or the nation’s politics seem to be breaking his way. The country is mired in an economic abyss underlined by an official unemployment rate over 9 per cent and much higher if one adds discouraged workers and those in undesired part-time jobs. 

The deficit is stratospheric and worsening; the government seems paralysed with bickering partisanship – which Obama campaigned to end. Even his iconic accomplishment, healthcare reform, no longer has majority support. In the mid-term elections – a notable disaster for his party – the only Democrats running campaign ads about healthcare were those who bragged they voted no.

Despite constitutional niceties about the executive’s separation from the legislature, Americans view their president as leader of the federal government and responsible for what Washington does, or in this case, what it hasn’t done.

Incumbent presidents with a united party behind them tend to win their fights for reelection.

Yet anyone of a betting frame of mind – most likely those still holding a job – could take an even-money wager that the person raising his hand to take the oath of office in January, 2013 will be the current occupant of the White House.  Though they don’t make cute campaign slogans the reasons are mostly negatives.

The first is that his party is NOT divided. Incumbent presidents with a united party behind them tend to win their fights for reelection. The modern presidents who have not been re-elected all faced division within their party or third party challengers who stole voters from the president’s party. 

That applied to Republicans George Bush Sr confronting Ross Perot as well as Bill Clinton in 1992, and Jimmy Carter who barely beat back the challenge from Ted Kennedy before losing to Ronald Reagan in 1980. You have to go back to Herbert Hoover to find an incumbent with a united party who lost, and he was running against the Great Depression as well as Franklin Roosevelt.

What Obama has

Any plausible dissent to Obama from within the Democratic party would come from the Left, which is unlikely. Whatever the grumbling by activists of  his deviation from the progressive playbook on the extent of economic stimulus, support for the unemployed, education reform, withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and serious support for the environment, Obama has given them enough to keep quiet. 

More important than any policy differences, the Democratic Left is not going to lend a hand in defeating America’s first black president.  

There have been NO major scandals in the Administration. This may at first seem minor, but an early sign of recent presidents’ declines have been well-publicised scandals. The names include Jack Abramoff in GW Bush’s second term; Monica Lewinsky in Clinton’s last years; the Iran-Contra mess at the end of Reagan’s tenure.

Scandal is a media-driven symbol for a president’s inability to govern without corruption. Obama leads a fairly well-regarded administration that appears to provide effective governance – a vital measure used by independent American voters in choosing a president.

“This slowly improving economy may be … a surprising plus for the incumbent.

There is in fact NO recession. Despite the dark and dreary economic news these headlines are the aftermath of the over-leveraged, under-regulated financial failures of 2008 – before Obama took office. And whether his Keynesian spending programmes beginning in 2009 were too much or, as many mainstream economists insist, too little, the economy continues to improve. The stock market, as witnessed in last month’s extraordinary gains, now believes that there is no immediate danger of a recession.

The 2.5 per cent increase in the American economy last quarter underlines a country emerging from stagnation. And this slowly improving economy may yet provide a calming background for next year’s election, and a surprising plus for the incumbent.

Barack Obama is NOT a bad guy. With almost three years of intimate media chats an unknown black politician with a funny name has become a reassuring, calm presence for many Americans. People think he’s smart, that he’s trying to do the right things and that he has an attractive family. He is one of America’s celebrities, playing basketball with staff, comforting his kids and joking with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show.

The Republican ‘alternative’

This election his opponents will not get much traction from his vulnerabilities last time, including: Obama’s race, religion and inexperience. Anyone aiming these at the president will be firing blanks.  

Finally, the president is NOT a Republican. It is not mere partisanship to point out that the GOP will have problems reaching beyond their conservative base. More of the public blames the last Republican president for the current economic turmoil than blame Obama. The Republican-dominated Congress is given a positive rating less than half of what the president gets. 

As much fun as the current crop of Republican candidates have in reaching to the Right in their party for primary votes, the results may prove depressing for the surviving nominee. A good part of the country will see him/her as anti-immigrant, anti-unemployeds, anti-gay, anti-social security, anti-healthcare reform and anti-taxes on millionaires. As much as the opposition party complains about the pain that the economy has inflicted, who really thinks that their nominee will help those most hurting – those who have lost homes, jobs, health and income? 

Does the current narrative told by Republican leaders – anti-taxes, anti-deficit, anti-government programmes – convince anyone suffering from this downturn that help is on the way?

By focusing on the current White House occupant our pundits have neglected the real choice voters will have in a year: Between a familiar president governing a united party and administration in an improving economy against a lesser known candidate of an unpopular, conservative party. 

A reminder: This election is not just a question of Obama, his record and character. It is Obama vs a living, breathing and, arguably, less attractive alternative.  

Gary Wasserman is professor of government at Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Qatar.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.