Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Advantages of Incumbency

It's dawning on liberal pundits that Obama might not be reelected. Take a look (via Hot Air) at Howard Fineman and Chris Matthews agreeing that, with the economy still likely to be in the toilet by 2012, Obama can’t run on his first-term performance and expect to win. His only recourse, they argue, is to sell liberal values to a forward-looking electorate that’s willing to let bygones be bygones:



Fineman and Matthews need to take a deep breath. I trust that, when they do, they'll appreciate the inanity of the notion that an incumbent president has a choice between running for reelection on his performance or his values. Voters may lack the political sophistication of talking heads on cable TV, but they weren’t born yesterday. They’ve been around long enough to know that what an incumbent president says in the heat of a reelection campaign reveals a lot less about his core values than what he did after the last campaign. So there’s no getting around the fact that the 2012 election will be a referendum on Obama’s values as revealed by his performance. It won’t take a rocket scientist to appreciate how the worldview behind ObamaCare, Dodd-Frank, DADT-repeal, and foreign policy of engagement, etc. differs from that of his Republican opponent.

Granted, the electoral advantages of incumbency are mitigated by a bad economy.  But they aren't obliterated.  Every incumbent president has an arrow in his electoral quiver that’s sharp enough to pierce the armor of the most formidable challenger.

In 2008, Obama managed to win the presidency despite being a spectacularly inexperienced politician. That probably would have done him in under normal circumstances. But it was Obama's good fortune that his principal competitors for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, weren’t that much more experienced than he was. And he may well have been bailed out in the general election by the fact that, despite being a war hero who’d spent 22 years in the Senate, John McCain wasn’t very good at projecting a reassuringly presidential presence after the financial crisis hit. 

A lot can change between now and the next election, but surely not this:  Obama will run for reelection as the third most politically experienced person in the country, and the two people ahead of him, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, won’t be running against him. In comparison, even a Republican challenger who can boast of a successful governorship, like Mitch Daniels or Tim Pawlenty, will look like he was just called up from the minor leagues. That gives any voter with an aversion to uncertainty (i.e., every reasonable voter) a reason for choosing Obama that he didn’t have four years ago. And that's probably a reason that will carry a lot of weight with persuadable independents.

Granted, as Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush found out, the advantages of incumbency only take a presidential candidate so far, especially when he has to answer for a bad economy. But the economy in 2012 will surely be a lot better than it was 1980, and probably only a little worse (but getting appreciably better) than it was in 1992.  Moreover, relative to their own policy aspirations, Carter’s record of presidential performance was inarguably worse, and Bush’s was at least arguably worse, than Obama’s. He doesn’t need the advantages of incumbency to take him nearly so far.

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