Monday, June 20, 2011

Obama's Uphill Climb

Not so long ago, Barack Obama said he would rather be a one–term president who did the right things than a president who won a second term by doing the popular (but not necessarily prudent) things.

That was a noble sentiment.

In fact, it kinda reminded me of a slogan from a series of cigarette commercials from my childhood. As a demonstration of their loyalty to the product, the people in these advertisements were shown with a dark circle around one eye and the slogan (spoken in broadcasts, printed in newspapers and magazines), "I'd rather fight than switch."

Some have complained that this president is not sufficiently supportive of Americans and their interests. It also kind of reminded me of Obama's predecessor — and his infamous inability to recall a mistake he had made in his first four years in office.

And it revives the concerns I have harbored from the beginning about this president's priorities.

Is he a socialist? I don't really believe that.

But I do think he is often guilty of leapfrogging certain troubling aspects that have kept others from acting decisively. He is to be praised for his vision of the America that should be, but he loses sight of what needs to be done first.

That is an important problem.

Is he correct when he worries about the cost of health care? Yes, I believe he is.

Is he right when he says that America needs to wean itself of its dependence on foreign oil? Yes. And, in the process, should we be encouraging the so–called "green" solutions to our energy needs? Sure.

Are American roads and bridges crumbling? Absolutely.

Do our schools need to be upgraded structurally as well as held accountable in the classroom? Positively.

It's an admirable wish list. But it will require more than wishes to make it come true. All these things — and more — take time and money.

They can't be accomplished without money. But there is no money. Cities across the nation are having to cut basic services — like police and fire protection and sanitation. Where does the government go for the revenue when the very foundation of the economy has been allowed to deteriorate?

To take on major projects at a time when so many places are forced to make such cuts requires a leader to call for serious sacrifices.

Sacrifice is seldom popular with Americans — but they have responded favorably to calls for shared sacrifice during times of national crisis. And this should certainly qualify as a time of national crisis.

America was going through a time of national crisis in the late 1970s, too. It wasn't as severe as it is today, and President Carter warned his countrymen that it would be worse in the future if we didn't start making some sacrifices — but most were not willing to do that and, when Carter sought re–election, the voters turned to the candidate who said there were simple solutions to complex problems — Ronald Reagan.

You can make the case — and I have — that, if we had listened to Carter, our situation would not be as dire today. But we didn't — and I believe we are paying a heavy price for that now.

I believe most of our current problems have roots that are decades old. What has been happening in the last three or four years probably was going to happen, anyway. Someone was going to be president when the chickens came home to roost. Perhaps it is simply Obama's misfortune to have been president through most of it.

As for time, well ...

These problems rarely occur in a single four–year presidential term. They can't even be accomplished in two four–year presidential terms.

And no president can ever be sure that his apparent legislative triumphs will not be overturned. Clearly, it seems to me, one of the prominent planks in the 2012 GOP platform will be the party's commitment to repealing the health care reform legislation that is considered the signature achievement of this president.

But, in the last three decades, incumbent presidents seeking re–election could expect to be asked some variation on Ronald Reagan's inquiry following his debate with Jimmy Carter — "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

And some folks are bending over backwards to reassure Obama and the Democrats who are jittery.

Like Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post — who admits the economic numbers are "grim" right now but, nevertheless, has good news for Team Obama.

Cillizza points out that a presidential election is "less a single national contest than a series of state–by–state battles." How a state's unemployment rate compares to the national rate will be critical, he argues.

"[O]nly four swing states" have unemployment rates that are higher than the national average, he observes — Florida, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina. They will be worth a total of 66 electoral votes in 2012.

To be elected president, a presidential nominee must receive 270 electoral votes. In 2008, Obama received 365. Cillizza points out that, even if Obama loses those four states, he could enjoy a "relatively comfortable re–election" if he carries all the other states that he won in 2008.

That's a pretty big "if."

For one thing, Cillizza writes — correctly — that 10 other swing states (Colorado, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin) that are likely to be targeted by both parties currently have unemployment rates below the national average.

But that's what those rates are today. They might drop in the next 17 months — or they might go up.

In a true bellwether state (I would put New Mexico and Ohio in that category), the unemployment rate compared to the national rate might be a good political barometer.

But political histories will play a role in the other states.

Let's start with the four states that Cillizza gives up for lost in his essay — Florida, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina.

North Carolina hadn't voted for a Democrat since it supported Carter in 1976 — and it did so with a healthy 55–plus% of the vote (in 2008, Obama beat John McCain in North Carolina by about 14,000 votes out of 4.3 million). But it turned against Carter in 1980.

It's almost the same situation in Florida. Unlike North Carolina, Florida supported Bill Clinton for re–election, but it voted Republican in all the other post–1976 elections until it went for Obama in 2008.

Obama had a little more breathing room in Florida than he had in North Carolina but not much — 50.91% to 48.10%.

Of the four states, I guess Nevada has the reputation that comes closest to being that of a true bellwether. It joined the Union during the Civil War and has voted for the losing candidate for president about half a dozen times since then — and only once in the last 100 years.

Michigan has voted for Democrats in the last five presidential elections — but Democrats shouldn't feel too secure. Until Clinton carried the state in 1992, it had voted for Republican nominees in the five prior elections.

Thanks to the Census, Nevada and Florida will be worth a little more in the 2012 Electoral College than in 2008, and Michigan will be worth a little less. North Carolina will be unchanged.

Unemployment rates will be important factors in any state where that rate is higher than the national average, and those four states might well be joined by some of the 10 states on that other list that Cillizza cites.

But electoral history will play a role, too. For example, I wouldn't be too quick to assume that Colorado, Indiana, New Hampshire or Virginia will remain in the Obama column.
  • Colorado has only voted for Democrats three times since World War II, and it hasn't voted for Democrats in consecutive elections since the 1930s.

  • It's much the same story in Indiana, which had only voted for one Democrat (Lyndon Johnson in 1964) since the 1930s — until it narrowly voted for Obama in2008.

  • New Hampshire has voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections and four of the last five — but it supported every Republican nominee except one from 1948 to 1988.

  • Until it voted for Obama, Virginia hadn't voted for a Democrat since 1964. It may have been the biggest of the surprises on Election Night 2008.
Beyond that, Iowa and Wisconsin will be tough to win. The recession has been devastating for many of the people there.The other states on that swing state list will be tough to win as well.

Even if unemployment goes down marginally, consumer confidence probably will still be in the doldrums when voters go to the polls — and that can be as heavy a burden as high unemployment. There is a lot of work to be done — and not a lot of time to do it.

In short, barring an astonishing economic turnaround, Obama faces a much tougher assignment in 2012 than many of his supporters will admit or acknowledge in June 2011.

No comments: