Will Barack Obama be reelected in 2012? It’s impossible to say, and given the GOP’s trouble finding a worthy candidate and the difficulties inherent in knocking off a sitting President, it’s easy to be pessimistic despite Obama’s rather obvious incompetence and soft approval ratings.
One thing is for sure, however; If Obama’s going to win, he’s going to have to do a lot more to move towards the center than he has so far. Dick Morris explains,
In the Clinton days, there were — and I suspect still are — two camps in the Democratic White House. There were those who advocated a fundamental repositioning in the center of our politics and those who wanted to battle along ideological lines, using economic populism and class antagonisms to bolster their chances of victory.
The problem with a leftist strategy is that the vote share a Democrat can attract with it has a very low ceiling — in the low 40s. Economic populism just doesn’t play that well outside of the Democratic left.
The key to this electoral model is, of course, turnout. Obama made it work and bring him a majority in 2008 by adding the votes of new, younger voters, increasing the African-American and Latino turnout, and playing on the unique economic panic of the times.
But, absent a big increase in liberal turnout, the appeal of class warfare and populist rhetoric is sharply limited.
Will Obama be able to replicate his turnout model of 2008 in 2012? With high unemployment, inflation and gas prices, its very unlikely. His problem, more probably, will be to animate his base and breathe it back to sufficient life to give him any chance at all. Most polls show growing liberal disaffection with Obama, as Libya, Afghanistan and his failure to close Guantanamo saps the enthusiasm he needs on the left.
But Obama has a larger problem in moving to the left. You can’t get re-elected president as an advocate. You need to be a leader. Only Harry Truman managed to get a second term by overtly partisan rhetoric, and he was coming off 20 years of the New Deal coalition. A president who attacks the rich and seeks to divide the country may be able to rely on the base to keep his approval ratings in the low 40s, but he has no way to get re-elected.
If you’re a liberal, there are lots of reasons to be excited about Barack Obama’s presidency — and, as Morris notes, a few reasons to be upset. Liberals, being liberals, tend to focus on the minor disappointments instead of all the liberal policies that have been pushed. That means that Obama will secure the left side of the populace, but it’s very unlikely that they’ll be as fired up as they were in 2008.
On the other hand, if you’re an independent, the entire Obama presidency has been one long disaster. The economy has been bad, gas prices have been high, there was a gulf oil disaster, Obama’s Wall Street cronies have been getting bailed out, the best medical system in the world is in danger because of Obamacare, our level of debt has gotten so out of control it’s threatening the future of the country, we’re fighting in Libya for reasons no one seems to be able to adequately explain and Obama doesn’t seem to do much of anything other than relax and campaign for President in 2012.
Obama’s base may be fine with this rolling trainwreck, but overt liberalism scares independent voters in a way that conservatism doesn’t. That’s why if Obama doesn’t make some kind of serious move back to the center, a lot more independents are going to start thinking, “Please, please, please, Republicans, just nominate an adult who’s competent to lead this country and I’ll vote for him or her.”