Why Obama Should Fear Perry

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, August 23, 2011


Rich Perry, the Governor of Texas and front runner in the Republican presidential race, has strengths that should cause real concern to President Barack Obama. If he is able to get his party nomination and stays out of trouble in the next 12 months, Perry will make it difficult for Obama to win re-election.


American incumbent presidents are vulnerable when the economy is stagnant and unemployment is high. Reelection chances are also hindered when incumbents have alienated important electoral bases. When presidential approval is low, incumbents depend on the opposition party failing to select a candidate that can take advantage of the president's vulnerability.


President Obama faces a complicated road ahead to win re-election. Unemployment is structurally destined to remain high. Given the little room the government has to push for an additional stimulus package that can foster employment, the 2012 electoral cycle will take place with unemployment above 9%. No president has won re-election with a similarly high unemployment. Obama has alienated his liberal base by not standing firm against the extension of the Bush tax breaks for the wealthy. He has also disappointed many of his anti-war supporters by failing to close Guantánamo and by not ending the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In failing to push for an immigration reform, Obama also let his Hispanic supporters down. There is discontent among Latinos for the failure to pass the Dream Act, the reform that would have granted a pathway to legalization to undocumented youth who attend college after being illegally brought to the country by their parents. In fact, there is no single demographic group or voting bloc that is more satisfied with Obama today than when his first term began in 2009.


Obama’s re-election chances looked less dimmed when the Republican presidential field was dominated by extremist conservative partisans. In fact, as the Republican Party embraced radical conservative positions, away from moderate voters, it was safe to assume that Obama would win re-election despite his own shortcomings. Sarah Palin, the controversial former governor of Alaska, the early favorite among Republicans, was widely considered unelectable. Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota Congresswoman and one of the leading voices of the Tea Party, was also seen as too far to the right. Mitt Rommey, the former governor of Massachusetts has struggled to be competitive against Obama among moderate voters disappointed with the performance of the incumbent president. Fortunately for the Republicans, the entry of Rick Perry into the race seems to have finally produced a candidate that can threaten Obama’s re-election.


Perry is far from being a perfect candidate. His record as governor of Texas is less than stellar. His extreme conservative views on social issues will discourage moderate voters in swing states. Moreover, during the first days of his campaign, he has already gotten himself in trouble by making imprudent comments and imprecise statements. In a 24-hour news cycle that normally blows anecdotal incidents out of proportion, Perry’s kneejerk style will undoubtedly provide his opponents in the Republican Party sufficient ammunition to damage him before the primary season begins in February of 2012.  


Perry will be the subject of intense media scrutiny in the coming weeks. If he is able to prevent allegations from turning into political scandals, Perry will consolidate as the front runner. Because the conservative wing of the Republican Party will continue to prefer any of the other Tea Party favorites—like Michele Bachmmann, Congressman Ron Paul or former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum—Perry needs to force other candidates who are targeting the same moderate Republican voting bloc to get out of the race. Getting former Utah governor John Huntsman Jr. and Mitt Romney out of the race will be the first priority for Perry’s campaign team. However, because he will eventually still need to attract the support of Tea Party loyalists, Pery needs to combine moderate and pragmatic positions without fully abandoning his more conservative positions.


Not surprisingly, after Perry entered the race, President Obama began his own bus tour in Iowa—the state where the primary season begins—before departing for vacation in the upscale Martha’s Vineyard, a Democratic-favorite vacationing location. Before Perry entered the race, Obama was still widely considered favorite to win re-election. If Perry survives the scrutiny he is currently being subjected to and can consolidate his leadership position within the Republican Party, Obama will need to worry much more about his own vulnerabilities. The U.S. president will need to attract moderate voters and, at the same time, work hard to regain the support of his former supporters who are disappointed with his government. That challenge seems as complex as the challenge Rick Perry faces within the Republican Party. 


After Obama successfully won in 2008 by running against an unpopular Texas Republican who was not even in the ballot, in 2012 the U.S. president might have to defend his own record against another Texas Republican who is so far successfully trying to portray himself as a moderate, pragmatic and conservative at the same time.