Barely 13 months from now our current president is more than likely to be our next one too.
The reasons tell us much about ourselves and the current state of our politics. But the driving factor powering Obama's reelection prospects -- perverse though it may be -- is this: we've been reelecting below average to just above average presidents. And our current president clearly falls comfortably within that range.
Caveats and unknowns be damned. I'll make my stand here and now. Yes, the time from now until November 2012 is an eternity in American politics; and yes, by all conventional standards, a sagging and fragile economy (unlikely to show enough significant improvement to redound to the administration's credit anytime soon) should drive Obama's reelection prospects into a black hole. But a number of other factors may also lift him up and drive his political success.
First, he's does have some history on his side. It's true that no president has been reelected (save FDR) with unemployment above 7 percent. But that's not the only trend line. There's also this one: Since 1980, only one American president has failed to gain reelection -- George HW Bush. That's 32 years. The power of the incumbent is formidable -- even a hapless one; he'll have no primary challenger; and the inertia of not making a change is significant, particularly when a president is likeable.
It's fascinating too to consider the possibility that we are in a period of our history where we want a certain measure of stability in the one and only national institution in our politics that we can shape: the presidency. If Obama is reelected next year, it will only be the second time in American history that we have had three different two term presidents serving consecutively (it hasn't happened since Jefferson, Madison and Monroe). The painful reality of watching our politics at the state and congressional level become more volatile and dysfunctional -- with a focus on recriminations rather than problem solving (let's make a point rather than a difference) -- has created a kind of yearning (misplaced though it may be) that the presidency and the man (and someday woman) who occupies it might still save us. And so -- at least with both the last two-termers (Clinton and Bush 43) -- we seem to be willing to forget, forgive and figure out how to rationalize giving them the benefit of the doubt. Bill Clinton was a likeable rascal presiding over a strong economy; George W. Bush was in the middle of those wars -- Afghanistan, Iraq and another against terror. Barack Obama may well be the latest beneficiary of our illusions.
Second, there's the president's persona. Yes, for many Americans he's Satan's finger on earth -- either a socialist, big spending wild-eyed liberal on one hand, or completely incompetent, on the other. Many won't relate to a black man as president. And yes, he's probably too cool, detached and non-emotive.
But back on planet earth, he's a guy who is perceived by many more Americans as likeable, smart, funny with a dynamic wife, cute kids, a dog, and stuck in an impossible job trying to do the right thing. He hasn't even come close to the "I can't stand to look at the guy" reaction which haunted LBJ, Nixon, or the shrill moralism ("I'll never lie to you") of a Jimmy Carter.
Don't get me wrong. He's no FDR, Reagan or Clinton when it comes to a natural affinity for politics. But his likeability will help him enormously in a tightly contested reelection bid, particularly against an even stiffer Mitt Romney. When Americans vote once for a president and then a second time, they need to feel comfortable on the personal level. Is this the kind of guy that could relate to me and understands my situation if I had some time alone with him; or am I going to be staring at my shoes during the entire conversation -- as he is at his -- waiting for the meeting to end. He may be aloof at times; but in relation to Mitt Romney, the likely Republican nominee, Obama seems to exude a natural and sincere charm.
Third, there are those Republicans who right now seem to be the president's biggest asset in his reelection bid. Had you told me -- against the backdrop of the two longest wars in American history, an economy in the tank, and 70 percent of Americans believing the country is headed in the wrong direction -- that the opposing party would have this kind of difficulty producing a slam dunk nominee to contest 2012, I would never have believed it. But here we are with a large field of so many different personality types, not one of whom has yet to secure much of anything. We may not know much more other than the fact that the three who are garnering the most attention are Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Herman Cain until the actual voting starts in Iowa.
This sweepstakes for the Republican nomination reveals -- at a minimum -- the distress of a party that has still not gotten over its love affair with Ronald Reagan; one that is riven to its core with divisions over ideology; and that has yet to find a compelling "how to" message to govern beyond Just say no and 999. The Republicans that do have some pop (Palin, Christie) aren't in the race; those that don't, are. It may well be that the desire to push Obama out is so strong that their ranks will unify; but Mitt Romney seems at times like a Republican version of the John Kerry that ran against Bush 43; and Rick Perry a Texas bully.
Finally, since FDR, look who've we reelected as two term presidents. Only four presidents actually served both terms out -- Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43. Only one -- Reagan -- might even be considered a historic figure while in office. And even in Reagan's case it comes with some pretty big asterisks and a great deal of Hollywood hype. The others may have suited the times; but none are viewed as among our best presidents; indeed, in the case of Clinton and Bush 43, there were significant personal and policy failures.
So, Mr. President, all isn't lost. With some history, an agreeable personality, and even with a fairly mediocre record on the economy (albeit under very tough circumstances) on your side, Americans just might give you, too, another chance. And maybe from there, the good news for you and for us is that there's really nowhere to go but up.