A winning strategy but no candidate

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 27, 2011


As the 2012 election season approaches, President Barack Obama looks increasingly vulnerable. However, as long as Republicans are incapable of finding a sufficiently strong candidate that can satisfy the party’s influential conservative elite and at the same time attract moderates, Obama looks likely to win despite his weaknesses, mistakes and shortcomings. 


It was expected that job creation would be sluggish, but the fact that Obama is preparing to fight for his re-election with a less than stellar first term legacy is surprising. Obama’s approval has fallen to 40%, the lowest since he took office. Past presidents with low approval have struggled to win.  Past presidents who have run for re-election in times of high unemployment have fared worse.  After globalization permanently damage its manufacturing export industry in the 1990s, the American economy cannot lean on the vigorous growth in emerging economies to get back on its feet. The housing crisis that has depressed domestic spending prevents consumption from turning into the engine of economic growth. There is little hope that Americans will increase spending in the near future.  The United States is certain to go through the next electoral cycle with the highest unemployment levels since the 1930s. There is no way around recognizing that the economic conditions are unfavorable for the incumbent, and growingly unpopular, president.


To make matters worse, American fiscal indiscipline in the past 10 years reduced the government leeway to jumpstart the economy using fiscal stimulus. Because Washington did not behave responsibly when it could—under George W Bush—many people no longer trust the American political class. Not surprisingly, public opinion leans against additional spending, even if the recent conversion to fiscal austerity inevitably worsens the economic outlook. As a result, the Obama administration has no room to maneuver. Placed between a rock and a hard place, the White House has no good tools at its disposal to get the economy moving before the next election. Unemployment will remain high and will make it impossible for Obama to escape the defenseless position where he finds himself.


Republicans have a great starting point for their presidential campaign. Incomprehensibly, the Republican Party has failed to take advantage of that favorable condition. Thirteen months before the election and less than six months before the primary season, no Republican presidential candidate can credibly claim the title of favorite to win the nomination and, much less, to defeat Obama come November of 2012.


The field of candidates has narrowed recently. Yet, that is because the weaker candidates are dropping out of the race and not because other candidates are getting stronger.  In fact, the Republican race remains highly competitive and wide open precisely because there is no candidate that stands ahead of the pack. The media-hyped entry into the race of Texas Governor Rick Perry generated an enthusiasm not seen before in the race.  Perry’s dismal performance in the last presidential debate has fed doubts over his electability.  Many Republicans are taking a second look at former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. 


The fact that Republican loyalists seem enthused every time a new Republican enters the race says volumes about how unconvincing candidate Rommey has been.  After losing to McCain in the 2008 primaries, Rommey has plenty of name recognition. He is the best known among Republican hopefuls. He is more competitive against Obama than all other Republican candidates, but he has failed again and again to convince Republicans that he can also be the number one choice. If the Republican Party ends up nominating Rommey, the only possible conclusion will be that no other candidate came about that could motivate the party. At best, Rommey is now running to get the nomination as a second best for most Republicans.


In recent days, speculation about another popular Republican governor entering the race has dominated the campaign talk. New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, has quickly captured the attention that four weeks ago was being directed at Rick Perry.  Christie has his strengths and weaknesses. He lacks experience, has a controversial record. He is too conservative on economic issues, somewhat liberal on some key social issues. His tenure has been controversial and polemic. He is no consensus builder.  Moreover, he has repeatedly denied any intention to run.  


Still, the fact that many Republicans are again searching for a candidate that can motivate the party, unite its factions, be acceptable to the religious conservative rightwing and, at the same time, be able to attract moderate voters confirms that none of those currently in the race has what it takes to defeat Obama, despite the vulnerable position the President will find himself in come November 2012.


As the election season nears, Obama is going through a sweet and sour moment. On the one hand, the American economic weakness makes him highly vulnerable. On the other, Republicans seem unable to find someone who take advantage of the incumbent president’s weak position and retake the White House away from Democrats.