I’ve paid less attention to this election season than just about any in my adult memory. So take this all with a grain of salt. But I’m going to predict now that Barack Obama will be re-elected President in a year’s time.
1. He’s already President. People who are already President usually get re-elected if they run.
2. His party, and his political tendency, are united behind him. The recent exceptions to the prior rule are Presidents Carter and George H. W. Bush. Carter faced a substantial insurgency within his own party during the primaries, and the general election featured a protest candidacy by John Anderson, a liberal Republican, who was a comfortable choice for people who wanted to vote against Carter but who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Reagan. Bush faced a more modest insurgency within his own party during the primaries, but a much more substantial third-party candidate in the general election, coming from the center but oriented around themes and from a regional and demographic base that had more in common with the GOP than with the Democrats. For all the various gripes about him, there is no real movement for a challenge to Obama from within his coalition, neither from the left nor from the center.
3. The GOP will not be united behind their candidate. They are united in their dislike of and desire to retire President Obama. But the only plausible candidate currently running – Mitt Romney – not only elicits no enthusiasm, he elicits columns like this. Indeed, the nominating process as it has unfolded so far has basically featured a series of desperate popular eruptions against the overwhelmingly likely standard bearer. Romney’s competition, just in terms of plausibility, is much, much weaker than McCain’s in 2008, or Kerry’s in 2004, or Dole’s in 1996, or Clinton’s in 1992, or Bush’s in 1988. But the party just doesn’t want to believe they have to settle on him. I have little doubt that he will eventually close the sale, but buyers remorse will set in almost immediately. Democrats in 2004 and Republicans in 1996 were far from enthusiastic about their nominees, but neither Kerry nor Dole elicited the antipathy and distrust that Romney does. (McCain elicited a different but even more intense antipathy, and look how he turned out.) Romney will be an exceptionally weak nominee for that reason, someone who will have to watch his right flank not only if he is elected, but during the general election campaign, for fear of re-igniting an insurrection within his own camp. And that’s no way to win a general election.
4. The GOP has nothing to campaign on. Reagan and Clinton each defeated incumbent Presidents in times of economic dislocation and distress. Both ran campaigns that made clear diagnoses of the cause of that dislocation and distress, and proposed remedies. The Obama Administration has plainly failed to deliver a substantial recovery that would earn it an enthusiastic vote to reelect. But the country still knows that the economic crisis hit during the Bush Administration, so any plausible diagnosis of the cause of the crisis must at least refer to that period in history. The dominant GOP themes so far – regulatory uncertainty? seriously? – have not the slightest hint of plausibility. One can, of course, imagine alternatives to the Obama Administration’s policies that would be plausible and potentially persuasive – for example, the GOP could run on more substantial monetary easing coupled with fiscal retrenchment. That’s not what I’ve been arguing for in this space, but it’s a very plausible argument. But Mitt Romney can’t run on a platform of looser money – because his base is increasingly enthusiastic about the idea of abolishing the Fed entirely and going back on the gold standard. Of course, he’s not going to run on that platform either. On the economy, Romney is going to run, basically, on double-talk and assertions of his own special competence because he’s . . . a former banker. Right. Now there are other issues out there besides the economic situation. But, unlike in 1988, law-and-order questions are not uppermost in people’s minds (crime remains much lower than it was in the 1970s or 1980s). Unlike in 1980 or 2004, foreign policy questions are not pressing either – and if they are, Obama can run on a record of liquidating Osama bin Laden and winding down the war in Iraq, while Romney will likely run on a platform of extreme bellicosity. So what is he going to run on? And note, I’m not saying that a candidate other than Romney would do a better job. There is simply nobody actually running on the GOP side who is saying anything that could serve as the germ for a general election campaign. The GOP doesn’t want to run on anything. That’s why, as Ross Douthat correctly suggests, they’ll likely choose a nominee like Romney, who represents nothing. But, as the saying goes, you can’t beat something with nothing.
5. The unemployment rate will probably go down, steadily if slowly, from now until election day. Chairman Bernanke is committed to preventing us from slipping back into recession. He’s not going to tighten between now and election day – not with unemployment as high as it is, and with Europe as fragile as it is, and with a substantial chorus from his own side of the aisle arguing that money has been and still is too tight, and with the knowledge that everyone would perceive precipitate tightening action as politically motivated. Congress is going to be useless, but President Obama isn’t going to shoot himself in the foot – if there’s anything he can do on his own authority to tackle unemployment, he’ll do it, and if Congress is actively obstructive he’ll tie that around the GOP nominee’s neck. So barring an external shock (like an Israeli attack on Iran), the unemployment situation should improve steadily if slowly. That’s not as good for the President as if it were improving rapidly. But it’s different from the situation the first President Bush faced. From November 1991 through July of 1992, the unemployment rate increased with every reporting. Obama’s situation may be more comparable to the situation under the second President Bush, when unemployment inched its way down from its peak in July, 2003 through just before election day. Now, obviously, the absolute level of unemployment is going to be way too high on election day for a majority of people to be satisfied with President Obama’s performance. But the trend probably matters more at the margins. A strong positive economic trend led to an overwhelming reelection victory in 1984 even though no sitting President since World War II had been reelected with such high prevailing unemployment rate. A weak but positive economic trend in 2004 led to a modest reelection victory even though the absolute level of unemployment was much better than it was in 1984. That’s what I expect for President Obama in 2012: a modest reelection victory based on weak but improving fundamentals.
6. I’m talking my own book. In 2008, I announced my support for then-candidate Obama by saying I was an “Obama skeptic for Obama.” I’m still an Obama skeptic for Obama, and barring something very surprising I expect to support him for reelection. I don’t agree with him on everything, and I don’t think he’s been a particularly strong leader during the economic crisis. On pretty much all major issues he’s a very conventional thinker and a cautious political actor, which is what I thought he was during the campaign. But the Republican Party really doesn’t offer a serious alternative.