Chastened and humbled by an angry, volatile electorate, President Obama’s reelection in 2012 looks like it’s in serious jeopardy.
The coalition of black, Hispanic and young voters who helped him win 365 Electoral College votes in 2008 apparently disappeared for Democrats in 2010, costing the president’s party its majority in the House. Polls show independents who supported the president two years ago have also turned against him, and conservative voters in the dumps after the Bush years are now energized.
The president’s policies have proven to be fat targets for Republicans, and voters are disappointed in both the economy and the president’s response to the recession.
Still, despite the dark clouds over the White House, Obama must be seen as favorite to win reelection. Here are five things he has going for him the day after voters went from hope to nope.
1. Obama is a relatively popular guy
While he might not feel like it today, Obama is still the most popular politician on the playing field (with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, whom Obama smartly named secretary of State).
With an average approval rating of 45 percent, the president still enjoys the support of almost half the country. Both he and his aides are keenly aware of how Presidents Reagan and Clinton bounced back after first-time midterm defeats, and they also know that Obama has a higher approval rating than Clinton did at this point.
He is a known commodity with higher favorable ratings than anyone who might step up to challenge him. The president is no longer a “skinny guy with a funny name” but the leader of the world’s leading nation. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the other Republicans hoping to beat him in 2012 cannot say the same.
2. The GOP’s circus primary
Even with big wins, the Republican Party is in the middle of a Democrat-like identity crisis — the Tea Party-vs.-establishment narrative is not going away.
If anything, the GOP’s crisis will be exacerbated as Republican candidates slowly but surely turn their guns on each other in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Given the propensity of candidates such as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich to say and do controversial things, Obama can look the sober, dignified statesman compared to his opponents.
3. The power of incumbency
Tuesday night was undoubtedly a referendum on Obama’s first two action-packed years in office, and 2012 will be a yet more important report card.
But he still has the job and all the perks that come with it. The weight of the White House, not to mention the benefits of Air Force One, should not be underestimated.
It is almost always difficult to knock off an incumbent, and Obama has only lost one race in his career.
While editorial boards are asking if the Palins and Mitt Romneys have the foreign policy experience to do the job, Obama will be the commander in chief.
4. The unifying power of a common foe
GOP Rep. John Boehner (Ohio) and the unusual, unpredictable freshman Republican class could well do for Obama what he cannot for himself — quiet the professional left.
Obama’s supporters rallied around him in 2008 with the purpose of sending a Democrat to the White House and ending eight years of Republican rule under President George W. Bush, a villain to the left.
In the absence of such a bogeyman, liberals have spent the last two years bashing one of their own. That could change with Boehner in charge and Republican presidential candidates lining up to take shots at Obama.
Liberal television pundits such as Rachel Maddow may start to look at Obama as a relative who sometimes disappoints them but whom they love anyway. They can criticize that relative, but political blood is thicker than water, and these people will be ready to fight when outsiders attack.
In other words, it will soon be cool to be an Obama supporter again.
5. He has time
The campaign season is never-ending, but swing voters will not make up their minds about 2012 today or even tomorrow.
Obama and his aides are well-aware that they need to sell their accomplishments over the next two years. It’s an area where they have failed spectacularly thus far.
The White House thinks it can convince voters in 2012 that the administration has helped save jobs during a brutal recession. For this to work out, Obama will need cooperation from the economy.
The president also hopes a better economy will improve feelings about the healthcare law, and he will boast that his administration is providing millions with insurance. Ideally for Obama and the White House, he will enter 2012 in a position to highlight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are either over or winding down.
There is no doubt that the White House has been weakened, and that Obama has his work cut out. But this president has long relished being the underdog, and a win in 2012 would not be the first time the “skinny guy with a funny name” defied expectations and enjoyed the last laugh.