It’s way too early to say who the next president will be. But even now, in June, we can already predict at least one outcome of November’s election: if Mitt Romney ends up winning the White House, he will have a better shot at success than many of his presidential predecessors—and he will have Barack Obama to thank for the leg up.
When Obama arrived in Washington three-and-a-half years ago, he was forced, from day one, to deal with an unusually long list of world-historic hassles. A global financial meltdown. A ballooning budget deficit. A terrorist mastermind still at large. A broken health-care system. A pair of costly quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so on. He addressed as many of them as he thought possible, but persistent unemployment obscured pretty much all of his foreign and domestic accomplishments. As a result, Obama now stands a 50-50 chance of losing reelection—a loss that would basically guarantee him a spot in the history books as a middling commander in chief.
Should Romney assume the Oval Office next year, however, his job would be a lot easier than Obama’s was in 2009. Before you start howling, consider the evidence. History tends to measure presidents, at least in part, by how well the economy performs on their watch, regardless of whether their policies are actually helping or hurting the nation’s fortunes. (Of course, their policies are rarely that powerful anyway.) So let’s start there. When Obama took office, the economy was hemorrhaging an average of 700,000 jobs a month and shrinking at a 6.7 percent annual rate. Because of the crisis, he was forced to set aside the rest of his domestic agenda and spend massive amounts of political capital to pass the largest (and perhaps least-popular) stimulus package in American history.
Unless another economic apocalypse strikes between now and next January, Romney wouldn’t have the same problem. In fact, the economic outlook for 2013-17 is relatively rosy at this point. According to the latest Federal Reserve forecast (PDF), for example, GDP growth is expected to hover around 3 percent in 2013; unemployment is expected to fall to 7.5 percent or so. The following year, those numbers should hit 3.5 percent and 7 percent, respectively, and joblessness should return to “normal” (i.e., about 5.5 percent) soon thereafter. And remember: these projections don’t factor in any of Romney’s economic proposals. No 59-point plan. No tax cuts. No rolling back of government regulations. Nothing. If Romney simply sits at the Resolute Desk, twiddling his thumbs, he will soon be able to tout economic numbers that are, in all likelihood, more robust than any Obama has enjoyed for the entirety of his administration. And if Romney passes some economic legislation, the public will probably credit his policies for whatever improvements they see—even the ones that would’ve happened anyway.
Health care is a similar story. At the start of Obama’s term, one in every three Americans had lost their coverage at some point during the previous two years. More than 30 million citizens couldn’t get coverage at all. Meanwhile, the shared cost of caring for the uninsured—-i.e., funding their ER visits—was adding $1,000 to the typical family’s policy. Obama chose to spend most of the rest of his political capital pushing (and eventually enacting) ambitious legislation designed to solve these problems, polarizing the country and depressing his approval ratings in the process.
This is good news for Romney for two reasons. The first is that Obama has already completed the challenging work of persuading change-averse Americans that universal coverage is a worthwhile pursuit; as president, Romney wouldn’t even have to make that case. The second is that even though Americans now support the concept of universal coverage (thanks to Obama), they seem to oppose Obama’s way of providing it (thanks to Obama’s opponents).
Romney is perfectly positioned here. A full 68 percent of voters now say they want some or all of the Affordable Care Act reversed, and the Supreme Court is poised to back them up. If Romney repeals and replaces the law before it becomes fully operational in 2014, as he has proposed to do, the public will never actually get to experience the mundane, Social-Security-like reality of Obamacare; instead, the ACA will forever exist as a sort of terrifying counterfactual fever dream. Romney, meanwhile, will present his defederalized Plan B as a welcome relief from the dystopian future that could have been, and with nothing but a fantasy to compare it to, many Americans will probably be convinced—even though it’s likely to leave millions more of them without insurance.
The economy and health care aren’t the only areas where Obama would be giving the hypothetical President Romney a head start. There were nearly 200,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan when Obama took office; that number should shrink to less than 50,000 by 2013, all of them in Afghanistan. At the dawn of the Obama administration, most of al Qaeda’s top leaders were still alive; now, thanks to Obama’s shadow war, most of them, including Osama bin Laden, are dead. In fact, by the time Romney might arrive in Washington, the kind of tax-reform and deficit-reduction package that Obama tried to cobble together with House Speaker John Boehner last July might be already wending its way to his desk. According to a report Thursday in Politico, “a dozen senators... are quietly pushing to have a major tax and budget package ready by September so a bill can be introduced immediately after the November elections.” If the story is correct and “the secret talks ... allow Democrats to entertain deeper cuts to entitlements than they usually would” while also allowing Republicans to “talk more candidly about increasing tax revenue,” then Romney will have a sizable jump on some of the nation’s thorniest fiscal issues long before he ever sets foot in the White House.
I’m not arguing Romney would automatically be a great president. Nor am I saying that Obama deserves credit for everything his potential successor could eventually accomplish. Mitt could, and presumably would, make some mistakes. All presidents do. And history is unpredictable: the forces that ultimately define or derail a presidency are impossible to identify in advance. My only point is that right now, Romney is on track, if elected, to enter the Oval Office with a stronger wind at his back than many of its previous occupants, including Obama.
And that, more than anything else, may be what’s at stake in this election, at least for the combatants themselves. Like him or not, Obama has already done a lot of the hardest, dirtiest jobs on America’s 2009 to-do list. If he’s reelected in November, he gets the chance to preserve (and, finally, enjoy) the fruits of his labors: an improving economy, a universal health-care system, a safer war on terror, perhaps even that elusive deficit deal. Meanwhile, if Romney wins, he gets to build his presidency on ground his predecessor has very conveniently cleared for him—and Obama’s achievements go unrealized or uncredited. So no wonder Chicago and Boston are so busy bloodying each other up. This year really will be one for the history books.