Why is Barack Obama’s road to re-election so steep and uncertain at this stage?
There are five important reasons.
1. An indefensible record. Every election which features an incumbent is, at least in good measure, a referendum on the record of the incumbent. The problem facing Obama is that he can’t offer a convincing case that his policies have succeeded. Recall that at the outset of his presidency, Obama told NBC’s Matt Lauer, “I will be held accountable. I’ve got four years… If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.” Yet last October, Obama had to concede to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that “I don’t think [people are] better off than they were four years ago.”
In addition, the main achievements of the Obama presidency—including the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus package—are deeply unpopular. By virtually any measure, then, the president has presided over a failed first term. He cannot reinvent, and therefore he cannot successfully defend, his record.
2. A weakening economy. The Obama campaign rested its hopes on the American economy getting stronger rather than weaker. This would have allowed the president to argue that while things haven’t improved as quickly as Americans had hoped, the trajectory was encouraging, that progress was being made, that the building blocks to prosperity were in place. From there, Obama would say he needed a second term to complete what he (belatedly) started in his first. But the data this year—including dismal economic growth, job creation, and factory orders—have left the Obama narrative in ruins. In the fourth year of his presidency, Obama is presiding over a weak economy that is becoming weaker still. The issue the public cares most about (the economy) is the issue the president is most vulnerable on.
3. Intellectual exhaustion. The Obama campaign is out of ideas. On the economy, Obama has used virtually everything in his progressive toolkit. Nothing has worked. And so the president, unable to defend his record in the first term, is left with no compelling vision to offer in a second term. Witness his speech in Ohio yesterday. It was billed as a “major” address on the economy. But it was widely panned even on the left for being empty and uninteresting. The president himself cannot articulate why his agenda in a second term would be more effective than what he’s done in his first term. He’s running on empty.
4. A formidable opponent. The Obama campaign’s attempt to disqualify Mitt Romney on grounds that he’s too extreme to be president has fizzled. Whatever complaints one may have about Romney, being an extremist is not a plausible one. As Bill Clinton admitted, Romney has been a governor, had a “sterling business career,” and “crosses the qualification threshold.” Since securing the GOP nomination, Romney has made few unforced errors. He’s begun to repair the damage he had sustained. He’s shown impressive discipline and focus as a candidate. He’s outraising the president. And Governor Romney’s campaign is, at least as of now, clearly superior to the president’s.
5.The late break. In most presidential elections, undecided voters break in large numbers for the challenger. If someone is undecided about an incumbent they know well, they will usually cast their ballot for the challenger. That’s particularly true when the country is suffering from economic difficulties and the political fundamentals are bad for the person occupying the Oval Office, which is certainly the case today.
Craig Shirley’s book Rendezvous With Destiny reminds us that 10 days before the 1980 election, Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan by one point in a CBS News/New York Times poll; and the morning of the presidential debate (October 29), a Gallup Poll reported that Carter had a three-point lead over Reagan. Yet Reagan outdueled Carter in the debate and ended up winning 44 states and defeating Carter by almost 10 points.
I have long believed, and continue to believe, that the durable dynamic in this race will be that a majority of the public, and a large majority of independent voters, (a) consider Barack Obama’s tenure to be a failure and (b) are inclined to vote against him. They are bone weary of his presidency, and they want it over.
The challenge for Mitt Romney is to sufficiently reassure these voters that he’s up to the task of being president and that he would be an improvement over Obama. There have been higher bars to clear in the history of American politics, and at this stage in the race—with less than 150 days to go—the former Massachusetts governor is on course to do just that. Which is why he should be considered the favorite in the race.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Follow on Twitter: @Peter_Wehner .