The field of candidates for the 2012 presidential election may not yet be set, but the themes are coming into focus, as are the messages that each side will use to appeal to American voters.
The key to Republican victory will be to contrast a positive, conservative vision of America's future with Obama’s doubtful, radical vision, as reflected in his record.
Obama stands for what he calls a “social compact
”--a vague socialist ideal, grafted onto the Constitution, in which individual freedom and self-government must bow to the (never realized) ideal of material equality or fairness.
Republicans, bolstered by the Tea Party, must stand for the liberty that our Founders enshrined in the Constitution, informed by the timeless values that nurture it and expressed through policies that advance growth and opportunity.
[caption id="attachment_268080" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Gallup Presidential Approval Tracking Poll (5/11/2010)"]
In a moment, I’ll consider the best arguments each side will make. First, however, it’s important to consider five key background factors that will affect the race and the result.
1. Q1 2009 was an economic trough.
President Obama came into office at the lowest point of the recession. Given the underlying strengths of the American economy, it was almost certain that a recovery would happen on his watch. We can argue that the recovery isn’t fast, broad, or deep enough, but barring a slide back into recession, the overall economic outlook is (hopefully) going to be better than it was when the financial crisis propelled Obama to victory in 2008.
2. Americans dislike one-party rule.
Over the past several decades, Americans have consistently preferred to vote one party into power in Congress and the other party into power in the White House. Because Congress is currently split, this factor could help either side, but if it begins to look like Republicans will definitely capture the Senate, voters may become more comfortable with the idea of keeping Obama on as President as a check on the legislature.
3. Race is still a factor.
Left-wing pundits proclaim that the 2012 contest will be “the most racist” election in American history. Though the media hyped fears of a “Bradley effect” in 2008, and claimed, more recently, that the Birther phenomenon was driven by race, in reality the issue of race continues to be a shield for President Obama, rather than a sword for his opponents. Challengers will face the burden of explaining why voters should reject America’s first black president.
4. The media will back Obama.
Despite the contemptuous treatment of journalists by the Obama White House, and regardless of some grumbling about the President’s broken promises (and empty self-congratulations) on transparency, the bulk of the country’s mainstream media will continue to spin events and arguments in favor of Obama and against any Republican challenger. Obama is still un-vetted, and is likely to remain so; the same will not be true of the GOP nominee.
5. The devil you know.
Most of the potential and actual GOP candidates are unknown to many Americans. President Obama came into office with no executive experience and a past shrouded in mystery, but today Americans have a better sense of who he is than they do about his opponents. Many Americans are more comfortable with him after the successful operation to kill Osama bin Laden, and (to a lesser degree) since the Birther conspiracy theory went bust.
These factors tend to favor Obama’s re-election. At the very least, they suggest that the eventual Republican nominee will have to make the case that Obama hasn’t just done a bad job, but an exceptionally
bad job. Here are five key elements in that argument:
1. The worst debt in American history.
President Obama has presided over radically accelerating deficits and debt, and his long-term budget proposals make the problems worse. Our debt rating has been downgraded, and we are on the precipice of a public debt crisis because of the 2009 stimulus bill and because of ObamaCare. Worst of all, Obama has dealt with serious solutions, like Paul Ryan’s budget, with evasion and crude scare tactics.
2. Not just a slow economy, but a damaged one.
The American economy is weaker because President Obama has expanded the role and power of the federal government. With increased control has come increased corruption, and decreased investment and entrepreneurship. The president demands higher taxes and constantly demonizes successful Americans. He wants to redistribute wealth rather than create it, endangering our future prosperity.
3. Weak and incoherent on foreign policy and security.
The bin Laden hit is the exception that proves the rule. We would not have found bin Laden if we had followed Obama’s past policies, and his present policies are making us more vulnerable to terror in the future. More often than not, he fails to stand up for American values, allies, and interests, and has led us into an embarrassing stalemate in Libya because he prefers to “lead from behind.”
4. A hyper-liberal Supreme Court.
President Obama has made two Supreme Court appointments, both with very left-wing views. They each replaced liberal justices, but over the next several years he may have the chance to replace conservative ones as well. Today, a 5-4 split might overturn Obamacare; tomorrow it may not. We cannot allow him to saddle Americans with a generation of far-left, radical constitutional jurisprudence.
5. The Great Divider.
The death of bin Laden united Americans in celebration, but the rest of the Obama presidency has been deeply divisive. Obama has sought to turn poor against rich, Latino against Anglo, and liberal against conservative, negating the transcendent persona he created in 2004 and 2008. His narcissistic and vindictive style is worse than Washington politics-as-usual, and he remains out of touch with Americans.
Those are the basic themes that any Republican candidate will have to master. Other questions--social values, immigration, energy policy--will play an important role in both the primary and general elections, but the five themes above will define the choice for many voters, especially independent voters. Below, I have outlined the five best arguments that Obama and the Democrats will be able to deploy in his defense:
1. We got Osama bin Laden.
The one great achievement of the Obama presidency thus far wasn’t just a campaign promise. It was a campaign boast--and he delivered, resolving some doubts about his ability to serve effectively as commander-in-chief. Obama will argue that he also fulfilled a promise to draw down forces in Iraq, and that the death of Al Qaeda’s leader holds out hope for a withdrawal from Afghanistan as well.
2. We may be turning the corner on the economy.
Unemployment remains high, and gas is twice the price is was when Obama took office, but stronger job growth and a healthy stock market will encourage the president to argue that America is on a comeback. He will argue that while the stimulus was expensive, it was better than the GOP’s alleged “do-nothing” option, and that it was necessary to fix the damage of the Bush era.
3. We’re a more tolerant and equal society.
It took too long for his base, but Obama finally ended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” His justice department is also refusing to defend or enforce the Defense of Marriage Act. That might offend social and constitutional conservatives, but Obama will claim these policies as milestones in an enduring struggle for civil rights, whose arc he will trace (once again) to Abraham Lincoln and through his own biography.
4. We dare to have big ideas.
Though ObamaCare remains unpopular, and his proposals for high-speed rail are widely ridiculed, President Obama will continue to cite these as evidence that his administration has been willing to think big, unlike his opponents--hence the slogan, “Winning The Future.” The president will also continue to hint that his best ideas are yet to come, and that they will require a full two terms in office to come to fruition.
5. Republicans are going to take everything away.
President Obama is already accusing Republicans of wanting to take Medicare away from seniors, to strip women of their “health,” to set alligators upon immigrants, and so on. Democrats view the passage of the Ryan budget, with its Medicare reforms, as the perfect opportunity to unleash all kinds of outrageous stories--and there is some evidence
that the tactic may be working.
It’s too early to tell which of the arguments, on either side, will be the most important--and there may be new issues that emerge over the next eighteen months. The question that Republicans must consider now is which of the aspiring GOP candidates can best articulate the party’s best arguments against Obama’s best defenses, in a climate that will probably favor the incumbent, despite his generally low approval ratings.
Add Obama’s charisma, and his likely fundraising advantage, and it’s clear that Republicans need a candidate who can bring something unique to the contest, a unique quality that Obama still can’t claim after a term in office.
That could be executive success, financial know-how, conservative social values, genuine bipartisanship, unabashed American pride--any or all of these features and more, as long as they are authentic, and joined to an intense will to win.