(Centennial Fellow) The President has scored a stunning foreign policy triumph. The country rejoices. Praise for the President’s leadership and the prowess of those soldiers he sent in harm’s way is bi-partisan and near universal. The pundits say this singular accomplishment probably assures the President’s re-election. The most attractive of his possible opponents in the other party decide that this isn’t their year. Those who are willing to run seem unappealing and poll poorly.
Barack Obama in 2011? No, George H.W. Bush in 1991.
History does not repeat itself, but it does offer instructive parallels and the similarities between today’s political environment and that of 1991 are striking.
In actuality the advantages enjoyed by Bush were much greater than those of Obama.
While the killing of Usama bin Laden is an immensely satisfying achievement of historic dimension, it cannot compare in magnitude with the lightning victory of Operation Desert Storm in expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, a triumph that decisively expunged the dark shadow of defeat in Viet Nam that had long haunted our nation.
This comparative is reinforced by the trajectory of the two men’s approval ratings: while Bush soared to a stratospheric 91%, Obama’s have only ticked upward to the mid fifties.
So, how did Bush lose, and what does that event a generation ago, tell us about Obama’s prospects for 2012?
One of the most memorable images of the 1992 Presidential campaign was a picture of Clinton’s irascible political manager James Carville seated at his desk in the “War Room” pointing to a sign above it that read: “It’s the Economy, Stupid.”
Carville endlessly repeated this mantra and insured that it was the centerpiece of the entire Clinton campaign.
On Election day Carville’s obsession was validated when a heretofore obscure Southern governor overthrew a sitting President. The exit polls were conclusive: The dominant issue for voters was the economy. The celebrated victory of Desert Storm was little help to Bush. His inability to budge the economy out of a stubborn recession was clearly the principal factor that defeated him.
Throughout American history and fifty-six Presidential elections the factor that most consistently defeated the party in power was a bad economy. Nine times since 1928 the President’s party has been ousted from the White House. While there are always many issues in a Presidential contest, in eight of those elections a struggling U.S. economy was key to the incumbent party’s defeat.
Two events within the space of five days illustrate the volatility of Obama’s political health.
Late Sunday night – May 1st- Obama went on television to announce the killing of Bin Laden. Around the White House and across the country cheering flag waving crowds spontaneously took to the streets. Republican leaders uniformly praised the President’s “gutsy” call. Overnight polling over the next three days saw Obama’s approval ratings go from 46 % to 54 %.
Five days later the Dept. of Labor announced that the U.S. unemployment rate had risen from 8.8 % to 9.0 %- the first increase in six months. The Obama “spinmeisters” were quick to commend the creation of 244,000 new jobs omitting to mention that a minimum of 250,000 new jobs a month are required just to keep up with population growth.
More ominously for Obama the same polls that showed the up tick in his overall approval ratings following the killing of Bin Laden also showed 59 % of Americans disapproved of his handling of the economy and a stunning 70 % felt the country was “on the wrong track.”
Add to this the fact that overall economic growth in the first quarter fell to an anemic 1.8 % - significantly lower than forecast- while gasoline prices rose to four dollars a gallon, and we’re looking at numbers and trends which if unreversed between now and election day make a second Obama term not just unlikely but historically virtually impossible.
Strangely Obama seems not to fully grasp his peril. While applauding and subsidizing offshore oil drilling for Brazil, he denies American companies the right to do the same in the Gulf of Mexico. While his countrymen seethe over needing fifty dollars to fill their tanks, Obama is busy visiting wind farms, and touting solar panels.
When George Bush was defeated in 1992, the most common criticism of him among voters was that he didn’t “get it”, and couldn’t relate to “people like us”. Whether Obama “gets it” or doesn’t want to get it may be irrelevant. What’s absolutely relevant, however, is that exploding deficits , crushing debt, and a sick economy means his chances for collecting a federal pension in 2013 are excellent.