Thursday, March 17, 2011

Missing the Point

I've been studying presidential elections most of my life, and it seems to me that Barack Obama and his campaign staff are missing a fundamental fact about presidential politics.

Let me explain.

There are, essentially, two kinds of presidential elections: One in which the incumbent is a candidate, and one in which the incumbent is not a candidate.

The last election was an example of the latter. There have been only a handful of those in my lifetime, but, typically, the party that has been out of power wins, as it did in 2008.

The issues are different in an open race than they are in a re–election contest.

In an open race, the emphasis is all on the future for there is no record to discuss, other than, perhaps, a candidate's legislative or gubernatorial record, which may be seen as a microcosm of what he would do as president.

(It isn't infallible, though. Most presidents seem to learn that governing a single state is an entirely different matter from governing a diverse nation that spreads over several time zones.)

Sometimes the nominee of the party in power is held accountable for the incumbent's record in what amounts to a case of transference. John McCain, for example, was often blamed for George W. Bush's shortcomings.

In a re–election campaign, however, the emphasis is almost solely on the president and his record. Obama might have had some familiarity with that if he had ever been re–elected to anything more significant than the Illinois state senate.

Obama and his advisers act as if they can win in 2012 the way they won in 2008, but they can't. As the outsider, he could criticize Bush and score points. He can't do that in 2012 unless his policies are clearly making things better. We don't know yet if that will be the case.

What we do know is what his approval ratings have been. Lately, they have been inconclusive. They suggest a president who has a lot of work yet to do — and not a lot of time to do it — to persuade the voters that he deserves four more years.

That is why it really doesn't matter who is nominated to run against Obama. It could be a centrist or an extremist. As I observed last month, Gallup reports that Obama and a generic foe are deadlocked.

Obama and his campaign staff are deceiving themselves if they think they can make this campaign about their opponent, whoever he or she may be. This is going to be about Obama and his policies.

If people don't like Obama's policies, they will not vote to re–elect him. If they do like his policies, they will. It's really just that simple.

In the next 20 months, if you want to know how Obama is doing in regard to winning a second term, seek out the poll results on job approval. They've been measuring presidential job approval since FDR was president and they can tell you a great deal — so let's see what those figures can tell us about the men who have been president in the last 70 years:
  • At this point in his first term, George W. Bush had just launched the invasion of Iraq. Polls by CBS, Gallup and Newsweek all showed his approval in the 50s range — and that approval soared above 60% as American forces overwhelmed the Iraqis.

    It even climbed above 70% in some surveys — a rare occurrence once the shock of the 9/11 attacks wore off.

    Bush's popularity remained above 50% long enough for him to win a second term, but those who disapproved of his performance outnumbered those who approved for most of that term, starting with the response to the Terri Schiavo matter.
  • In mid–March of 1995, Bill Clinton's approval rating tended to be mired in the mid–40s, but it climbed above 50% after the Oklahoma City bombing and Clinton's speech at the memorial to the victims the following month.

    The following year, Clinton was re–elected. It was the Democrats' second straight victory, but it was the fifth straight election in which the Democratic nominee failed to receive a majority of the popular vote.
  • George H.W. Bush was the last sitting president who was denied a second term. Like Obama, he was elected in an open election, largely because he was the vice president under the remarkably popular Reagan, who was barred by law from seeking a third term in 1988.

    In mid–March of 1991, the elder Bush was still riding the enormous wave of popularity he enjoyed during the Persian Gulf War, and many of his potential challengers were concluding that he could not be beaten the following year. But things began to erode quickly for Bush as a recession (decidedly mild by today's standards) took its toll, and his popularity was below 50% by the start of 1992. He went on to lose to Clinton that November.
  • As Ronald Reagan entered the spring of 1983, his approval ratings were beginning to emerge from the 30s range as the country finally began to recover from the recession. He saw his approval ratings begin to exceed 50% for the first time in more than a year after terrorists bombed the Marine barracks in Lebanon that fall and Reagan pledged a continued U.S. military presence there.

    By November 1984, Reagan's approval rating was way over 50%, and he won 49 of 50 states in his bid for re–election.
  • In mid–March of 1979, Jimmy Carter had not yet given his so–called "malaise" speech, but his approval ratings had been experiencing a malaise, lingering in the 30s in the early part of 1979.

    It would get worse — his approval ratings would drop into the Nixonesque 20s range in the weeks prior to that speech. He enjoyed a bounce from the rally–'round–the–flag effect following the embassy takeover in Iran that November, but his approval settled in the high 30s and low 40s for much of 1980.

    He was defeated, of course, by Reagan.
  • Gerald Ford is a unique case. He was appointed vice president in 1973 to replace Spiro Agnew, who had resigned. The next year, he succeeded President Nixon, who also resigned.

    So, when Ford ran for a full term in 1976, he was an unelected incumbent.

    The view from about 1½ years prior to that election has to be seen differently because Ford had only been president for about six months. Compared with the sullen, secretive Nixon, Ford was a breath of fresh air and enjoyed initial approval ratings in the 60s and 70s, but he pardoned Nixon a month later and never really got over the political fallout.

    About 20 months before the '76 election, Ford had a job approval in the 30s. His approval rebounded slightly, but he never really got into the 50s range again.
  • Richard Nixon's approval ratings were in a decline in the spring of 1971. He was around 50% approval in mid–March and remained within a point of two of that for the rest of the year, but his job approval began to rise in 1972, in part, presumably, because of the activities that came to be part of the Watergate scandal.

    Nixon won by a landslide in November 1972.
  • Like Ford, Lyndon Johnson took office under unusual circumstances. He was sworn in less than a year before the election, and Gallup consistently reported approval ratings in the 70s until after he had won a full term in 1964.

    Because he had not served half or more of his predecessor's term, Johnson could have sought re–election in 1968, but, by mid–March of 1967, after reports that the military was conducting germ warfare experiments and polls that indicated growing opposition to the war, his approval was in the 40s. Johnson decided to drop out of the 1968 race a year later.
  • Who knows what might have happened if John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated? He had encountered some opposition to his policies, as every president does, but, in mid–March of 1963, two–thirds of Americans expressed their approval of the job he had been doing.

    He is the only president since Americans have been surveyed about presidential job performance who remained above 50% (well above, in fact) throughout his presidency. He was at his lowest level in the months before his assassination, but any president would have loved to have his approval rating (58%) less than a year before asking the voters for another term.
  • Dwight Eisenhower was always popular during his presidency. There were some occasions when his popularity dropped below 60%, even a few when his popularity dropped below 50%, but those who said they approved always outnumbered those who said they didn't.

    In March 1955, Ike's approval was in the upper 60s and lower 70s, which had been typical of the first two years of his presidency — and, as it turned out, was typical of most of his tenure. He had a serious heart attack in September of 1955 and spent several weeks in the hospital, but it didn't prevent him from seeking and winning a second term in 1956.
  • Harry Truman had the unenviable task of succeeding Franklin D. Roosevelt when he died in 1945.

    In mid–March 1947, Truman's approval rating was in the 60s following the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine to oppose the spread of communism. Truman's approval rating fluctuated, sometimes wildly, in the next year and a half, dipping into the 30s after he signed the Marshall Plan (which authorized billions in aid to more than a dozen countries) but rebounding enough for him to defeat Tom Dewey in the general election.

    Truman, having been the incumbent when term limits were imposed on presidents, was eligible to run again in 1952, but he chose not to. Perhaps he was influenced by his March 1951 approval ratings, which were in the 20s.
  • Like Kennedy and Eisenhower, more people always approved than disapproved of the job performance of Franklin D. Roosevelt — at least since pollsters began asking that question early in his second term. Gallup only reported an approval rating below 50% once (it was actually 48%, but disapproval was at 43%) — a week before the Nazis invaded Poland.

    In both March 1939 and March 1943, the years prior to his campaigns for re–election in 1940 and 1944, distinct majorities approved of the job he was doing, and he was re–elected both times.
If you think the Republicans could shoot themselves in the foot by nominating an extremist like Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich, remember that Reagan himself was widely regarded as an extremist when he sought the presidency in 1980. In those days, many Democrats believed he would be the easiest Republican to beat, another Barry Goldwater. I recall hearing Democrats worry more during the primaries about other Republicans in the field, the centrists like Howard Baker and George H.W. Bush. Or maybe Ford would be persuaded to run again. Everyone remembered how close he came to defeating Carter four years earlier. Most Democrats didn't think Reagan could be nominated. And if he was, he couldn't win. Reagan, they said, was too old, too conservative, too much of a loose cannon with his off–the–cuff remarks about things like trees causing most of the pollution. I even remember many Democrats acting relieved that a "dunce" like Reagan had won the nomination that summer. They had no idea that a Republican wave was coming their way. But it turned out that the voters weren't happy with Carter, and Reagan won in a landslide. The Democrats of today are making a similar misjudgment. They look at polls that show high numbers of Americans who like Obama personally, and they see polls that show high negatives for Palin and Gingrich and midrange numbers for the other prominent Republicans on the list — and they conclude that Obama will win because people like him. But that really isn't the issue with an incumbent. Sure, it is important to be liked. But most voters won't be making their decision based on that. There is still time — not a lot, but some — to turn things around, but the fact remains that much of the record would not be kind to Obama if the voters were going to the polls today. Smart Republican operatives would have been running 30–year–old clips of Reagan asking voters if they were better off than they had been four years earlier — and linking Obama's policies with Carter's. Say what you will about the direction the economy may (or may not) be taking. The fact remains that unemployment is around 9% right now. It was around 6.5% when Obama was elected. And that was bad. No one is disputing that. But this is worse. For millions of unemployed or under–employed Americans, the answer is likely to be "No!" if they are asked Reagan's question. That is what Obama must change before the voters start casting their ballots next year if he hopes to remain in the White House past January 2013.

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