All signs are seemingly against Barack Obama in the run-up to next year's election, yet his Republican adversaries can't seem to profit from that. Obama could end up with an undeserved victory.
America has 10 months left to run Barack Obama out of the White House, but the betting is that he will get another four-year term. How is that possible?
Let's start with the bad news. The conventional indicators all point to Obama being a one-term president, just like Jimmy Carter, who was stuck with a similar situation — an ailing economy and foreign policy defeats contributed to his crushing defeat at the polls by Ronald Reagan. Half of all Americans give Obama poor marks for his first three years in office, and there's no improvement in sight. From the historical perspective, this ratio is a bad sign. And worse, more than 70 percent of Americans say America is on the wrong path, with less than one-quarter of the people saying it's on the right path.
But now for the surprise. After flirting with every Republican candidate on the scene — from radical right-winger Michele Bachmann to conservatives like Rick Perry and Herman Cain — only two candidates are left standing: Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. But both trail Obama in the polls, with Obama slightly ahead of Romney and a full 8 percentage points in front of Gingrich.
That paradox cries out for an explanation. The national mood is bad, the economy is flat on the floor — and all this since Obama took office in 2009. The deficit is deepening, the national debt continues to grow and there's little movement in the unemployment figures. All the data point toward a looming defeat for Obama, yet he still leads Romney and Gingrich.
The reason can be found in both of Obama's potential opponents. In brief, Romney — the man in the middle of the road — lies just behind Obama and thus has the better chance of becoming president. But he doesn't stir up the Republican base. That's why Republicans for months now have been looking so desperately for an alternative. The latest shooting star, Gingrich, has his heart in the right place — right being the operative word here — and is popular with the Republican base, but he horrifies the rest of the voters. Polarization or not, the focus of the electorate remains steadfastly in the middle.
More to the point: The decisive independent voter doesn't care for Gingrich, finding him too radical in his speech and too off-target with his opinions. Half the independents went for Obama last time, but Gingrich would only get one-fourth of them. Why are these mysterious independents so important? They went for Obama in 2008, but favored the Republicans in the 2010 congressional elections. They will also decide the 2012 election, and they are growing in number, as the latest analysis by Third Way, a group of moderate Democrats, seems to show.
The standard bearers make little impression on hardcore Republicans
It's not surprising why the Republican establishment doesn't eagerly look ahead to next November. Candidate Romney, who could defeat Obama and is close to him in national polls, leaves the party cold. Gingrich, popular with the party base, currently trails Obama considerably in national polls — and when it comes to independent voters, the less said about that the better.
Party favorites (like Gingrich) are unpopular with the voters; those with a chance of beating Obama (Romney) can't get the support of the troops, and mobilization on election day is all-important: Which party can get the most people to the election booth? When I asked a prominent Republican how he thought Romney could motivate the reserves in the base he replied, “No problem. Our best motivator is Obama. Our people are so embittered, they'll even swallow a Romney.”
But the polls don't yet reflect such optimism. Gingrich alienates the centrists and Romney isn't accepted by the far right. That's the short moral of the story, but it goes deeper than that. The economy, one of the best early indicators in politics, is beginning to brighten. As a second recession threatens in Europe, America's economy is showing signs of gradual recovery, with predictions of 2 percent growth next year. The employment figures are beginning to improve, and banks will make credit easier to get. The raw economic numbers aren't as important in an election year as the trends are, and they all show gradual improvement.
Take, for example, the unemployment figures. At the peak of the crisis, unemployment stood at 9.1 percent. Now they are at just under 9 percent. If they are below 8 percent next November, Obama will be able to claim the title of shining conqueror of the recession. That's why the smart money says that a weak field of challengers plus an improving economy spells four more years of Obama in the White House, even if he doesn't really deserve it. (As usual, the accuracy these predictions is not guaranteed.)