How might Obama win in 2012 - and what would happen next?
Several readers have disputed the plausibility of my new book, The Blast of War: A Narrative History of the Third World War, on the grounds that it features the re-election of Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election. While I would agree that, given present world conditions, it appears more likely than not that President Obama will be defeated next year, there is still, as sketched out in the book, a plausible path by which he might yet win.
Before we explore how Obama could win, we ought to begin by looking at why he is likely to lose: not only has he presided over an anemic economic recovery, but he has also proven to be a feckless and disengaged leader, seemingly far-removed from the concerns of everyday people. Nor should the left look to the Occupy Wall Street movement as the harbinger of a majority: as I am fond of reminding its supporters, the net electoral result of all of the protests of the 1960's was that in 1968, nearly 60% of American voters cast ballots for either Richard Nixon or George Wallace. Four years later, 60% of newly enfranchised eighteen-year-olds voted to re-elect President Nixon. American politics lurched leftward only when the Watergate scandal resulted in the election, in 1974, of a McGovernite Congress that promptly abandoned South Vietnam and embraced other far-left policies generally abhorrent to the majority of the American people.
Obama's team is clearly embracing the Harry Truman model in crafting his campaign. The problem he faces in seeking to do this is that he doesn't have anything like Truman's base. If you look around the world, you can find a consistent pattern of such campaigns being successfully waged by long-term incumbents, whether by individuals or by entire governments. After a long and largely successful spell in government, much of the public has grown tired of an incumbent and, all things considered, would like to see that person replaced. However, they're not particularly enthusiastic about the alternative, and so, therefore, a sufficiently charismatic or hard-fighting leader is able to rally the troops for one final victory. Not only does Truman's successful resurrection of the Roosevelt coalition fit this mold, but so does George H.W. Bush's 1988 victory, John Howard's 2004 re-election in Australia, and John Major's in the United Kingdom in 1992. The sort of campaign that Truman ran depended not only upon Truman's fighting personality, but also on the sort of residual public goodwill that exists for a long-serving government that most people recognize has, overall, done more good than bad for the public. Clearly, little of this applies in the case of Obama.
The arc of history, in Obama's case, clearly points towards defeat. There are only two modern presidents who have a story that closely resembles his: Hebert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. Like Hoover and Carter, Obama was installed in office amidst tremendous hope that he could personally solve the nation's problems, and, like both of those men, he has a difficult and intellectual personality that has kept him from genuinely engaging with the American people on a personal level. Though both of those other men were engineers while Obama is little more than a failed social engineer, they all share an aloof and technocratic style that keeps or kept them from being forgiven many of their transgressions by the American people.
Yet, in spite of all of this, Obama can still win. The math involved is quite simple -- and it perhaps explains the willingness of the president to embrace the "Occupy Wall Street" movement in spite of the fact that it is likely to eventually become toxic (if it has not already) to most moderate voters. To understand how this would work, he has to look no farther back than 1992.
For all the talk about the supposed brilliance of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, the truth is that he won a lower percentage of the vote than Michael Dukakis and barely more than Walter Mondale did in the process of losing almost all fifty states. While we can quibble at length about whom those who voted for third-party candidate Ross Perot would have voted for had Perot remained out of the race (exit polls suggest that they might have split evenly), it is undeniable that 1992 showed us how a split in the center-right vote in America could result in a plurality win for the Democrats.
Indeed, if they are particularly clever in this, Obama's campaign might manage to create a four-way race in 2012. It is easy to imagine a campaign where, for example, one faction splits from the Republican Party and runs a "Tea Party" candidate for president on the grounds that the putative Republican nominee is insufficiently conservative, while, at the same time, a new "centrist" party runs a candidate on the grounds that the Republican candidate is an "extremist." It is also easy to see the media willingly feeding both stories to the public at the same time. If such a scenario came to pass, Obama could perform worse than any incumbent president in history and still win the election.
Already we have seen, in a number of congressional elections, the emergence of fake "Tea Party" candidates pushed into the race for the purpose of splitting the vote. Does it really seem unlikely that Obama's team will be unable to find one -- and they likely would be, given the stakes -- capable of mouthing all the right conservative phrases, among them the claim that anyone who supports the mainstream Republican nominee is not a "true conservative"? If that candidate alone were able to win, say, between 10% and 15% of the national vote, all Obama would have to do is continue to launch brutal and class warfare-driven attacks on Republicans in order to get the low-forty-something percent of voters who still approve of him today to drag him across the finish line.
An ugly win by Obama would be a detriment to the country. I'm not sure if he, clearly driven to win re-election above all else, really cares at this point about that. However, I should also point out that it would also likely be harmful to Obama himself. He would find himself faced by a hostile Congress that would have good cause to question his legitimacy and would block him at every turn. He would also likely face the hostility of an ever-larger segment of the public. He ought to reflect upon the example of former California Governor Gray Davis, who managed to get himself re-elected through the twin underhanded tactics of first intervening in the Republican primary and then relentlessly shredding the character of the opponent he selected, businessman Bill Simon. Davis won the election but was recalled by the voters of California within a year.
Although there is no way to remove a president from office by a direct vote of the people, it seems likely to me -- given his certain political weakness and the likely emergence of future scandals -- that a re-elected Obama would eventually face impeachment and removal from office at the hands of the Congress.
Given that a divided right remains the clear path for Obama to win, Republican unity must become the overwhelming imperative of 2012. It is healthy and good that Republicans should fight with vigor over who should be the nominee, but, once the issue is settled by the voters, all conservatives must fight the temptation to opt for the ideal over the acceptable.