For a couple of years now, optimists about Barack Obama’s reelection prospects (myself included) have peddled the Ronald Reagan analogy. Reagan, you may remember, won 49 states in 1984 with the unemployment rate at 7.4 percent. The lesson: a president overseeing a weak economy can still win reelection—easily—if people believe the worst is over and prosperity is about to return.
The recent jobs numbers make that analogy less convincing. In 1982, when Reagan got shellacked in the midterm elections, the unemployment rate was near 11 percent. But it dropped sharply in 1983 and 1984. This March, when unemployment dipped to less than 9 percent (from almost 10 last November), it looked like Obama might benefit from a similar trajectory. But now that unemployment has edged up again for two months in a row, that looks unlikely. The best bet is that when voters go to the polls next fall the economy won’t be in free fall, as it was when Obama took office. But neither will it have turned the corner. For most Americans, it will have been lousy for as long as Barack Obama was president, and there will be no tangible evidence that it will get any better in his second term.
So why do I still think Obama will win in 2012? Because if the Ronald Reagan analogy may not exactly hold, the George W. Bush analogy just might. Unemployment wasn’t particularly high when Bush sought reelection in 2004, but Americans were in a sour mood nonetheless. Throughout the summer and fall of 2004, a clear majority of Americans said the country was on the wrong track. The numbers, in fact, were only marginally better then than they are now. So how did Bush win? For one thing, people’s feelings about him outpaced their feelings about the state of the country. Despite saying the country was on the wrong track, a slight majority of Americans approved of his job performance, and he was reelected by essentially that margin.
One explanation is that some portion of Americans simply liked Bush personally, even though they didn’t think America was faring very well on his watch. For some, it may have been his personal rectitude after Bill Clinton. For others, it was his religiosity. For others, it was the sense that he was a regular guy. Obama enjoys a similar dynamic. Maybe it is intelligence and eloquence. Maybe it is the fact that he, like Bush, seems comfortable in his own skin. Maybe it is his own reputation for rectitude, a reputation buttressed by the lack of scandals in his administration. Maybe it is a lingering pride in what his election says about America. This isn’t true for all presidents. Americans never thought very highly of Bill Clinton as a person even as they acknowledged that the country was thriving under his leadership. But for whatever reason, Americans seem a little softer on Obama than the hard economic realities would suggest.
The second thing that helped Bush was a weak opponent. From the beginning of the race, Bush’s advisers insisted that the 2004 election was a choice between him and his opponent, not a referendum on his presidency. And they succeeded in making John Kerry’s alleged flip-flopping a dominant factor in the race. We don’t know who the Republicans will nominate in 2012, but a strong candidate will need to appear: 1) up to the job, 2) like a person of conviction, 3) able to relate to ordinary Americans and 4) ideologically mainstream. Right now, Mitt Romney struggles with numbers 2 and 3. Tim Pawlenty struggles with number1. Newt Gingrich struggles with number 3. Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman and Herman Cain struggle with numbers 1 and 4.
Perhaps one of them will overcome those deficiencies, and perhaps Jon Huntsman will turn out to have none of the weaknesses, but as of now, it looks like a field of substantially flawed candidates. And by 2012, they may look even more flawed. In a party as ideologically charged as today’s GOP, it’s enormously difficult to win over base voters—and bring them to the polls in November—while also appearing ideologically mainstream. Obama will exploit that. The happier Rush Limbaugh is with the Republican nominee, the easier it will be for Obama to galvanize Democrats to go to the polls. Yes, liberals are not as passionate about Obama as they once were. But conservatives were not as passionate about Bush either, and he got a larger base turnout in 2004 than 2000, largely because in this hyper-polarized age, it’s not hard to scare your core voters about the other side.
Many things could upend this analysis. It depends on Obama running as good a campaign as he did last time and performing as well in debates. And it depends on the economy merely stagnating, not collapsing. But in this moment of sudden pessimism about Obama’s chances, it’s worth remembering that presidential elections are not exercises in econometrics. Candidates matter, and so far, at least, it looks likely that the better one will be the guy occupying the White House right now.
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, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.