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10.06.10

Obama's a Lock in 2012

Sure, things look grim for the Dems this fall. But the base will rally, the economy will turn up, and the GOP will shoot itself in the foot—ensuring the president a second term.

Arnold Schwarzenegger made headlines this week by declaring that “Obama will get a second term in office,” especially if Republicans win the House. You’ve got to hand it to the grand Teuton. Even when he says something blindingly obvious, he makes news.

Of course Barack Obama is likely to be reelected. For starters, American presidents usually get reelected. In the last 75 years, incumbents have lost a grand total of three times: in 1976, 1980, and 1992. And what did Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush all have in common? They had serious primary challenges within their own party (from Ronald Reagan, Ted Kennedy, and Pat Buchanan, respectively). The last president who lost reelection without a major primary challenge was Herbert Hoover in 1932.

A president who isn’t challenged in his own party can usually count on a decent turnout from his party’s base. (If party activists aren’t alienated enough to throw up a primary challenger in the spring, you can usually drag them to the polls in the fall.) A president without a primary challenger also has the space to move to the center to neutralize political weaknesses: That’s what Reagan did in 1984, when he toned down the Cold War rhetoric that was frightening moderates; it’s what Bill Clinton did when he signed welfare reform in 1996; and it’s what George W. Bush did when he signed a prescription-drug bill in 2004.

There’s only one Democratic pol who could keep Obama up at night, and she’s safely tucked away at the State Department.

I doubt Obama will move as sharply to the center over the next two years as did Clinton, but he can do so to neutralize key weaknesses if he wants, because there is zero prospect that he’ll be seriously challenged in the primaries. No challenger would have any chance of stealing the black vote, of course, and even among white lefties, for all their grumbling, Obama has no national rival. In 1996, Clinton was petrified about a primary challenge from Jesse Jackson. But there’s only one Democratic pol who could keep Obama up at night, and she’s safely tucked away at the State Department.

The second reason Obama will likely win reelection is, oddly, the economy. Historically, when voters evaluate a president for reelection, they judge the economy not against some abstract standard but against the economy he inherited. That’s why Franklin Roosevelt could win 48 states in 1936 with the U.S. still mired in depression, and Ronald Reagan could win 49 in 1984, even though unemployment on Election Day was still 7.5 percent. Obama doesn’t need the economy to be booming in 2012 to win reelection, he just needs voters to feel that it is better than it was when he took office and heading in the right direction. If that’s the case, and most economists seem to think it will be, Republicans won’t get very far by harping on the deficit. In 1984, you may remember, a presidential candidate told voters to ignore the nation’s nascent economic recovery and focus instead of the country’s swelling debt. His name was Walter Mondale.

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Finally, Obama’s third big advantage is his opposition: the GOP. The party has had great success in mobilizing older white conservatives, who weren’t particularly fond of Obama in the first place, and in a midterm like this one, in which younger and minority voters don’t turn out, their rage will loom large. But this very short-term success is preventing the GOP from grappling with its deeper problems attracting the Hispanic and “Millennial” generation voters who tilted heavily to the Democrats in 2008 and will comprise an even larger share of the electorate in 2012. As Schwarzenegger suggests, a GOP victory this fall will likely exacerbate the problem. With the Tea Party shaping the congressional GOP, the party’s immigration views will further alienate Hispanics.

The Tea Partiers will also put pressure on the party to attack popular government spending, as the Gingrich Republicans did after 1994. It’s worth remembering how Bill Clinton clobbered Bob Dole in 1996: He tied him to Gingrich’s assault on spending on education and health care. Obama could do something similar in 2012, proving that while Americans hate government in theory, in practice they demand it, especially in bad economic times.

It’s hard to recognize it now, with the economy in the tank and Democrats running for cover, but take a step back and you can see that we’re still probably in the early stages of an era of Democratic dominance. It’s going to be a while before another Republican wins the White House, and when they do, I bet they have less in common with Sarah Palin than with Arnold himself.

 

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book is The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris . Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.