Saturday, January 21, 2012

Why We Can't Wait

"I'm at the start of my administration. One nice thing about the situation I find myself in is that I will be held accountable. You know, I've got four years. And ... a year from now I think people are gonna see that we're starting to make some progress. But there's still gonna be some pain out there. If I don't have this done in three years, then there's gonna be a one-term proposition."

Barack Obama
Today Show
Feb. 2, 2009

Um, well, the fact is that, in February 2010, unemployment was at 10.4%.

And, logically, it follows that most people did not see progress at that time.

Now, to be fair, no one can see into the future so it is understandable that Barack Obama's forecasts could be a little off. I don't think anyone would have faulted him if there was an impression that his policies had merely stabilized the situation, that there was still work to be done. He could even have been forgiven if unemployment hadn't been entirely tamed yet.

He isn't, after all, an economist. He had no relevant experience in that area prior to his election to the presidency.

Nevertheless, I think something just about everyone can agree on is that stewardship of the economy is an important part of the president's job description. Some presidents are fortunate enough to preside during boom times, others do not, but most receive more credit/blame than they truly deserve.

One thing is certain, it seems to me: If someone chooses to seek the office, he/she must realize that the economy could play a huge role in his/her presidency. That includes the unemployment rate and pursuing policies that encourage job creation and economic growth.

Unemployment was about 6.5% when Obama was elected in November 2008, and it rose to about 8.5% by the time he took the oath of office in January 2009. That's an increase of two full percentage points during the presidential transition period alone — in a nation in which two percentage points represents nearly half of what has been a typical monthly unemployment rate (not the increase) in the last half century.

Then, in Obama's first year as president, unemployment went up another two percentage points.

Is it any wonder that Americans were frightened? A prudent chief executive would put that consideration above his ego and shift gears when it became clear that a policy was not performing as expected. That's what Franklin D. Roosevelt did during the Great Depression. He was never wedded to a single approach and was open to new ideas.

But Obama has concluded — somehow — that he must remain committed to his original policies, even when they prove to be failures, because abandoning them is a reflection on him.

After his party lost the Senate seat that had been held for so long by Ted Kennedy, Obama made noises about emphasizing jobs — but quickly returned to his obsession over health care. Unemployment was seldom mentioned until Obama announced his candidacy for re–election last spring.

Obama reminded me then — and still reminds me today — of Charles Emerson Winchester, the smug narcissistic surgeon from the M*A*S*H TV series who once injected a patient with curare, mistaking it for a sedative, and his colleagues rushed in to save the day.

While the other doctors fought to revive the patient, Charles could only think of how it affected him. "Do you think I want this boy to die?" he asked at one point. "It would be the worst thing that ever happened to me."

Many of Obama's supporters will point out that employment has been dropping (albeit slowly) in recent months. But I caution everyone to wait a couple of months and see if this pattern continues. My thinking is that most, if not all, of the recent hiring was due to the Christmas shopping season — which many retailers, eager to erase the memories of recent lackluster Christmas seasons, began promoting in October, if not September.

There is little demand for department store Santas or additional delivery help in January or February, and my expectation is that unemployment will begin to move up again — or, at best, remain where it is.

But even if it remains where it is, that is about where it was when Obama took office — and that was already higher than Obama said it would ever be under his economic policies when he was running for president the first time.

The economy had turned sour less than a year before Obama was elected, and many people were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when he took office.

But it's more than three years later now, and those who have been without full–time work throughout the Obama presidency are running out of patience. They ran out of unemployment benefits long ago.

Before 2012 is over, Americans will be forced to ask themselves Ronald Reagan's famous question from his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter — "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

That's what will ultimately decide this year's election — no matter how much the Democrats may insist that the previous administration was to blame for the bad economy or ridicule this year's crop of GOP candidates.

The voters passed judgment on the origin of the wretched economy four years ago. Obama was chosen to deal with it.

Obama was given four years to prove himself. It's the same amount of time that every president has been given, no more, no less.

At the end of the four years, the voters may be asked to renew the president's contract. They aren't always asked to do so. Sometimes the incumbent is prevented from seeking another term because he has already served two. Occasionally, the incumbent has not sought another term.

This incumbent announced his intention to seek a second term nearly a year ago.

The election in November will be about how well he has dealt with the economy he inherited but for which he has hesitated to take responsibility.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Inevitability of Mitt Romney

In the aftermath of Mitt Romney's victories in the Iowa caucus last week and the New Hampshire primary just two days ago, I've been hearing it all:It has long been said that Republicans give their presidential nominations to the person who is next in line — in other words, whoever finished second the last time there was no incumbent.

In 1988, it went to George H.W. Bush, who served for eight years as Ronald Reagan's vice president after coming in second to Reagan in the GOP's 1980 presidential nomination race.

The runnerup to Bush 41 in '88 was Bob Dole, who was given the 1996 nomination after Bush 41 had been elected and then sought a second term.

In 2008, John McCain, who lost to George W. Bush in 2000, won the nomination. And now, it's Romney's turn.

That doesn't sit well with conservative Republicans, who frequently complain that their party's nominees aren't real conservatives.

Granted, I consider myself a centrist. I'm not qualified to pass judgment on anyone's conservative credentials, but I was a bit taken aback yesterday when I heard a conservative acquaintance loudly asserting that — with the exceptions of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan — no Republican nominee in the last half century was a conservative.

I mean, I always thought that Richard Nixon was a conservative, but this guy pointedly disputed that. I suppose conservatives still hold it against Nixon that he created the Environmental Protection Agency, but they voted for him, anyway, when the alternative was much farther to the left.

That, it seems to me, was always part of Nixon's problem. Republicans liked him well enough to vote for him, but they didn't love him, and Nixon wanted to be loved.

Maybe that is why I was drawn to a comment by Ari Fleischer, Bush 43's press secretary, for

"Republicans like Romney," Fleischer writes. "They think he's qualified. But they don't love Romney and many worry about his core convictions."

Polls tend to reflect that. Roughly three–fourths of Republicans are said to favor anyone who is "not Romney," but they can't agree on who that should be.

No one can say Republicans haven't examined all their options. Every other Republican in the field has been given his/her moment under the microscope and been found to be lacking. Romney may prove to be a flawed nominee — or a flawed president — but the conservatives have not coalesced behind an alternative, and, barring an unexpected twist of fate, I'm inclined to agree with Charlie Cook, who is among those who say Romney's nomination is inevitable.

Things might have been different if one of the party's right–wing heavyweights had entered the race, but they all declined to do so.

I don't know if Romney's nomination really is inevitable. I've been studying presidential politics for a long time, and I know that just about anything is possible — until it becomes a mathematical impossibility.

If Romney manages to win South Carolina, he won't be a mathematical lock to win the nomination. But most of his challengers will find it difficult to continue with financial resources drying up and the top political operatives gravitating to the apparent winner.

In the meantime, Romney will gain momentum in his drive for inevitability.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Battle for the Senate

If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times.

Practically since the last vote was counted in the 2010 midterm elections, supporters of the administration have bemoaned the difficulty of accomplishing anything with this Congress. Barack Obama can't do anything with this do–nothing Congress, they say.

I find myself struggling to follow the logic.

If the administration has been unable to accomplish its objectives because the Congress — more specifically, the House because that is the chamber that is controlled by the Republicans — has been obstructing its efforts, then it seems to me there are really only two options:
  1. Change the president to one who will work with the Congress or

  2. Change the majority in Congress to one that will work with the president.
If the American people decide collectively that they want cooperation between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, the former seems more likely than the latter.

I mean, for Democrats to control both chambers of Congress, they would need to reverse the outcome of the midterm House elections, and that's a very tall order.

In 2010, Republicans took 64 seats from the Democrats. It wouldn't be necessary for Democrats to win that many to reclaim control of the House — unless the objective was not merely to win control of it but to regain the margin Democrats enjoyed in Obama's first two years in office.

To seize an extremely narrow majority (but a majority nevertheless) in the House, Democrats would need to increase their total by 25 seats in November. That certainly isn't impossible. Americans have taken at least 21 House seats from one party and given them to the other in the last three elections — but two of those elections were midterm election years, not presidential election years.

Historically, such turnover in Congress typically happens in midterm elections.

The party of an incumbent president who is seeking another term usually wins a few House seats in the process, whether the president wins or not, but only one such incumbent in the last 60 years has seen his party win as many seats as Democrats need to capture the House in 2012.

And no one has been suggesting that Democrats are likely to do that.

Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball indicates that Republicans currently are likely to hold 234 seats, which is 16 more than they need to ensure a majority in 2013 and 2014. Democrats can expect to hold 186. A total of 15 seats are regarded as tossups.

The Rothenberg Political Report says only six House seats are "pure tossups" — and there are five more, although Rothenberg indicates that those seats are leaning, however slightly, to one party or the other.

Well, one thing is certainly clear. Barring the development of something totally unexpected, the numbers just don't seem to be there to flip the House back to the Democrats.

That doesn't faze some of the Democrats I know.

It's no secret that Congress isn't popular, but many Democrats appear to be gambling that, because of that unpopularity, not only will Obama be re–elected but the voters, frustrated by gridlock, will give him a Congress that will work with him.

Don't hold your breath — at least on the latter — writes Alan Abramowitz for Sabato's Crystal Ball.

"[D]espite the abysmal approval ratings that Congress has been receiving," Abramowitz writes, "2012 will not be an anti–incumbent election. That's because opinions about the performance of Congress and opinions about whether most congressional incumbents deserve to be re–elected have little or no influence on the outcomes of congressional elections."

Sweeping losses in the House in a presidential election year (in which a 25–seat turnover is possible) tend to happen when the president (or his surrogate) is in trouble with the voters — in 2008, for example, when Obama was elected after eight years of Republican rule, and in 1980, when Jimmy Carter lost in a landslide.

If a change is going to come in Congress, it seems more likely to come in the Senate, where the Democrats' once filibuster–proof majority was reduced significantly in the 2010 midterms but they still clung to a bare majority.

Only 51 members of the Senate are Democrats, and two independent members of the chamber typically vote with the Democrats, giving them 53 seats. Forty–seven members of the chamber are Republicans.

It's safe to say that — numerically, at least — the bar for success is much lower in the Senate.

If Obama is re–elected, Republicans would need to win four Senate seats to have control of both chambers. That might be easier said than done, but incumbents who win re–election have been known to lose some ground in the Senate simultaneously. Bill Clinton's Democrats lost three Senate seats when he was re–elected in 1996, and Ronald Reagan's Republicans lost a single Senate seat in 1984.

If Obama is defeated, Republicans would need to win only three seats. That would produce a 50–50 tie, but the Republicans would have effective control of the chamber because the new vice president, who would be responsible for casting any tie–breaking votes, would be a Republican.

The fortunes of the individual presidential nominees in certain states could influence the outcome of the battle for the Senate. Rothenberg observes that ticket splitting, in which someone votes for the nominee of one party at the top of the ticket but votes for nominees from the other party in races down the ballot, is "increasingly rare" in America.

Thus, the trend to straight–ticket voting should work in Obama's favor in places like Hawaii and Massachusetts. Both states have long histories of supporting Democrats for president, and both will have Senate races this year. Logically, both seats should be in Democratic hands after the votes are counted, but both are a bit shaky.

In Hawaii, Democratic incumbent Daniel Akaka is retiring, and in Massachusetts, Scott Brown is running for a full six–year term after winning last year's special election to succeed Ted Kennedy. Obama's presence on the ballot could help his party retain — or regain — those seats.

But Obama could just as easily hurt Democratic prospects in states like Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota, Rothenberg says. Presently, Democrats hold all four seats, but two are retiring, and those seats are regarded as likely to flip to the Republicans. The incumbents are running in the other two states, and those races are regarded as tossups by both Sabato and Rothenberg.

Nebraska was already likely to elect a Republican senator before incumbent Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson opted to retire, Sabato writes, so that didn't significantly alter the terrain, and that certainly makes sense, given the state's electoral history. But Nelson's decision "makes a Republican takeover of the Senate a little more likely," Sabato observes.

The task could be made even easier in the weeks and months ahead — and Rothenberg points out that it all could come down to half a dozen states that are considered battlegrounds in the presidential race — and also happen to have Senate races on the ballot: Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Five of those seats (all but Nevada's) are currently held by Democrats, and three of those Democrats (the ones from New Mexico, Virginia and Wisconsin) are retiring.

New Mexico may be small, but it bears watching. With a reputation for being a bellwether (it's been on the winning side in 23 of the last 25 elections), it might be the most accurate political barometer on Election Night — in more ways than one.

Virginia, as I wrote last month, had been in the Republican column for more than 40 years until it voted for Obama in 2008. But his popularity has declined there, and I am sure that the state will vote Republican in November. The next question would be, will the Republican nominee's coattails help the GOP retake the seat it lost in 2006?

I don't know what to expect in Wisconsin. The state has supported Democratic presidential nominees in the last six presidential elections, and it has seldom sent Republicans to the Senate since the days of Joe McCarthy — but it voted for a Republican over three–term Sen. Russ Feingold i 2010, and it has frequently elected Republican governors, including the one who was elected in 2010.

Both Obama and his eventual opponent can be expected to spend a lot of time and money in those states. It remains to be seen what kind of an effect the presidential race has on the Senate campaigns there.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Task at Hand

"After 10 days off the grid on vacation in Hawaii, President Obama returned to Washington on Tuesday morning and is scheduled to dive right into the prime order of business for 2012: his re–election effort."

David Nakamura
Washington Post

In a matter of hours, Iowa Republicans will hold their caucuses.

The mettle of the candidates' campaign organizations will be put to the test as they attempt to mobilize their people and get them out to their caucus locations, whatever they may be — churches, schools, libraries, living rooms — and make sure that all the people who are slated to give speeches on their behalf are accounted for and ready to go.

That's the task at hand. Fortunately, the weather is pretty decent — by Iowa standards — so that should help.

It's the first official movement in the grueling process of choosing a candidate to run for president, but it's a grind that usually only one party must face. Typically, one of the two parties has an incumbent — or the incumbent's vice president — running, and that incumbent (or his surrogate) ordinarily does not have a challenger.

That's not always true. Sometimes, incumbents have drawn significant opposition, and it is possible that neither party's nominee In 2008, no incumbent president was in the race, and no incumbent vice president was running. Consequently, both nominations were up for grabs.

But that is quite rare. Usually, all the fun is on one side. This year, all the fun is on the Republican side.

And, typically, the incumbent, the one who faces no challenge or (pardon the expression) token opposition within his own party, sits back and lets the other party have the attention. But one should never underestimate Barack Obama's narcissistic craving for the spotlight.

David Nakamura of the Washington Post reports that, although "White House aides insist that the president is focused on 'task at hand,' " the president will address his supporters in Iowa tonight via the internet.

His remarks are scheduled for the middle of the evening, during the — wait for it — Democratic caucuses.

Huh? Democratic caucuses? Really? Who's challenging Obama for the Iowa delegates? Uncommitted?

The "task at hand," since the president constantly needs to be reminded of it, is putting this country back to work. There is still much work to be done in that regard. It's work Obama was elected to do but has mostly ignored since taking office — until winning votes again became important to him.

Neither Obama nor his supporters should be deceived by the 8.6% unemployment rate the Department of Labor reported last month. It will be a couple of months before the unemployment rate tells us whether that decline in joblessness was as permanent as anything is anymore or merely the seasonal hiring that is typical of the Christmas season.

It's good that the president is back in Washington. That's where this heavy lifting needs to be done.

Not on the internet chatting with folks in a nonexistent caucus in Iowa.