President Barack Obama is riding high, with legislative successes in the lame duck congressional session, an inspirational speech after the Tucson shootings and a can-do State of the Union address.
Given what looks like an unusually weak Republican presidential field, Obama today is a favorite for re-election.
Yet as events in the Middle East over the last two weeks show, unforeseen crises can shake up the political dynamics. If over the next year regimes that are more Democratic and not hostile to U.S. interests emerge in Egypt and elsewhere, the president will win praise for skillful diplomacy; if chaos or more radical elements take over, his political stock will drop.
Frustrating for Obama is that there isn’t a lot he can do to shape this outcome. The same is true of several variables that likely will be determinative in the 2012 election: the economy, the war in Afghanistan and the behavior of the House Republican majority.
Since World War II, no president or incumbent party has won re-election in a presidential race when the unemployment rate is higher than 7.5 percent. The current rate officially is 9 percent, and if those who have given up looking for a job are included, it’s actually greater than 10 percent; almost no expert thinks it will drop sharply in the next year and a half.
Home Prices, Debt
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc., sees unemployment close to 8 percent in the autumn of 2012. He offers three caveats that could worsen the outlook: if the weakness in U.S. home prices persists, or, on a global level, if the European debt crisis worsens, or if China’s economy, the world’s second-largest, has a bumpier landing than envisioned.
An 8 percent jobless rate in October of next year probably would be a political winner, Zandi suggests, as voters would see a clear pattern of progress. One model may be President Ronald Reagan in 1984. Despite the memories of “the morning in America,” a Reagan theme that year, the unemployment rate on Election Day was 7.4 percent. A year earlier, it had been 8.8 percent. It was the direction that mattered.
The Obama White House would settle for anything resembling such signs of forward movement in Afghanistan. That may be tough. Last year, U.S. deaths in that conflict reached almost 500, up 60 percent from the year before and more than triple the number two years earlier. The number of wounded more than doubled from 2009, as the U.S. struggles to counter the improvised explosive devices that are the largest cause of casualties.
Loss of Holbrooke
The government of President Hamid Karzai, insiders acknowledge, is as corrupt as ever. And Obama lost his most creative diplomat when Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, died suddenly in December, though the White House foolishly didn’t fully utilize his talents.
The president has vowed to start withdrawing some of the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan starting in July. That assumes progress, a dicey assumption.
The government’s own review at the end of last year was optimistic that al-Qaeda and the Taliban militants have been weakened, and the influence of Pakistan reined in. Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and Afghanistan expert, now at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says the U.S. is “no longer close to the precipice of defeat and strategic disaster,” as it was when Obama took office in January 2009.
Yet, especially with a delicate state of play in Pakistan, he also writes, “we are far from being on the edge of anything anyone would describe as success.” The administration’s own review warns the situation “remains fragile and reversible.”
Tea Party Overreach
When it comes to domestic politics, the White House and other Democratic strategists are optimistic that congressional Republicans, with the take-no-prisoners Tea Party newcomers, will overreach. They believe the president will be able to out-position and outmaneuver the opposition, a brightening picture that began to emerge with the State of the Union address.
There already are schisms within Republican ranks. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, the self-styled Tea Party leader, has made clear she has no intention of following the line of the House speaker, Ohio Representative John Boehner, or other leaders. Nationally, the ubiquitous Sarah Palin hijacks the agenda anytime she weighs in.
The establishment Republican leaders, including Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who has received mostly uncritical press for months, will soon have to produce on the tough fiscal issues, specifically by showing how they would slash domestic spending or whether to touch politically lethal entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. Democrats are salivating over these pending particulars -- such as proposed cuts in education or health research -- which will come as early as this week.
No Election Mandate
There remain a few Republicans who misread last November’s election as a mandate for their agenda rather than a protest against the governing party and tough economic times. Even a seasoned professional like the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, sometimes seems tone deaf. “If the president is willing to do what I and my members would do anyway, we’re not going to say no,” the Kentucky Republican cracked the other day.
Still, top Senate Republicans such as McConnell, Arizona’s Jon Kyl and Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander aren’t likely to provide many such openings for the Democrats to exploit. And Tom Davis, a former top Republican congressman who is an astute analyst of U.S. politics, suggests the White House is miscalculating that House Republicans will make the same mistakes their predecessors did in 1995 when they shut down the government, assuring President Bill Clinton’s re-election.
Boehner, Not Gingrich
“John Boehner is not Newt Gingrich; he’s not out there going to the zoo,” Davis says, noting the different styles and skills of the current Republican House speaker and the one 15 years ago. “The Republican base in the House is fractured but Boehner is the right guy to manage it well.”
The odds are the economy will continue to improve over the next year and half, the situation in Afghanistan won’t deteriorate and the Republicans will overreach on unpopular positions. If one, or certainly two, of these occur, and there’s no global cataclysm, bet on Obama’s re-election. That, however, largely is out of his control.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)