Saturday, March 5, 2011

It's the Economy, Stupid

That was true in 1992 when Bill Clinton was elected president. It was true again two years later when the Republicans captured both chambers of Congress.

It was true in 1980 when Jimmy Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan (incidentally, the Los Angeles Times makes the same point I made then — and continued to make on the 30th anniversary of the so–called "malaise" speech — about the choice those voters made), and it was true two years later when the Republicans lost ground in the House in a big way.

It was true half a century before that when Herbert Hoover lost the presidency to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

As far as I can tell from my studies of history, it has always been this way, and I believe it will always be so.

I know that Barack Obama's defenders want to blame his sinking approval numbers on racism, but that simply isn't an accurate — or fair — assessment.

I've never denied that some of those who opposed his candidacy in 2008 and continue to oppose his presidency in 2011 are motivated by racism.

But it is false — a political smoke screen — to suggest that the same man who received more votes than anyone ever has when he was elected president and won a higher share of the popular vote than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson has fallen from favor because of his race.

His skin color didn't change. When nearly 69.5 million Americans voted for him in 2008, his skin was the same color it is now. Are we to believe that voters who were progressive enough to elect a black president in 2008 have reverted to racism in a couple of years?

It seems more likely that Bruce Drake is on to something when he observes, in a Politics Daily piece based on a recent Quinnipiac University poll, that most voters like Obama personally"but a small majority don't like his policies."

A president needs to be likable. People want to like their president. And, in general, people do like this one. Contrary to what Obama's defenders want to believe, however, it is not the only consideration.

When times are good, voters can choose the presidential candidate with whom they might like to share a beer.

But when times are bad, voters tend to vote for the candidate they believe is more likely to keep food on their tables. For many reasons, a majority of voters is not confident at this time that Obama can do that.

Now, many things can affect what happens when the voters go to the polls in November 2012. A significant part of the equation is perception — being the politician he is, Obama should know this. We know he does. He manipulated public perception masterfully in pursuit of the nomination and then the presidency itself.

But he seemed to forget all that once he entered the White House. As job losses rose by totals that were well into six digits monthly, Obama seemed to focus only on never–threatened Supreme Court nominations, "teachable moments" and health care reform.

As I have said before, I did not vote for Obama in 2008 (nor did I vote for McCain — I voted for Nader), but I know people who did — and many of them have expressed their frustration and disappointment in his judgment, his priorities.

In a nation where more than 70% of the voters who participated were white, race did not prevent Americans from electing Obama in 2008, and race will not compel them to re–elect him in 2012.

His record will play a decisive role in what happens.

I've often heard Obama's defenders say that it took a long time to create this mess and it will take a long time to clean it up. That's true, but I don't get the sense that people expected Obama to wave a magic wand and unemployment would drop to 4% again and gas prices would fall below $2 a gallon.

I do get the sense that they expected to believe that his attention was riveted on the task at hand — and here is where Obama could learn some lessons from FDR. He made it clear from the first day that his focus was on reviving the economy.

He knew it was a long–term project, and he was sailing in uncharted territory. He was willing to try just about anything. If it didn't work, he was willing to admit that it hadn't worked and dropped it. When the first midterm elections of his presidency rolled around, things weren't back to their pre–stock market crash levels, but they were moving in the right direction and his party gained ground in both chambers.

Roosevelt's dedication was further rewarded when he sought re–election in 1936. Nearly every state voted for him, and his party's majorities in both the House and Senate surged past 75%.

It was not until Roosevelt's partisan attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court early in his second term that the voters' perceptions began to change. He won two more presidential elections, and his party retained control of Congress for another decade, but popular support was never what it had been before, even when the nation was united in its resolve to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Obama became America's first black president not because of (or in spite of) his race but because a majority of voters believed he could put the country on the right path.

If he becomes America's first two–term black president, it will be because they know he can.

Much time has been wasted. But there is still some time left. Recent jobs reports have been encouraging, but it will take sustained and clear growth before most Americans believe that things are turning around.

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