Obama’s Re-Election Prospects

Peggy Noonan’s weekend Wall Street Journal column (which is always posted online on Friday for some reason, though it appears in print on Saturday) makes the case that “Obama Is Likely to Lose” unless Republicans nominate someone truly strange or unappealing to independents. Peggy doesn’t say so, but surely she has in mind Trump, Huckabee, and Palin with this remark. And John has previously discussed this same subject here on Power Line.
Here’s how Peggy’s case goes:

You know the conventional wisdom. It is that unemployment ticking down, plus the economy inching back, plus the power of the presidency to affect events, equal a likely Obama victory in 2012. Smart people, especially Republicans, believe this. But how about this for a thought: It’s not true. It’s all wrong. Barack Obama can be taken, and his adversaries haven’t even noticed. In fact, he will likely lose in 2012.

Sounds reasonable. But I also recall Peggy confidently predicting in Forbes magazine back around 1993 or so that Bill Clinton would be a one-term president. As Sam Goldwyn, or maybe it was Yogi Berra, is reported to have said, “Never prophesy–especially about the future.”
Uber-blogger Glenn Reynolds is fond of the tag line that a repeat of Jimmy Carter may be the best case scenario for the Obama presidency, and let’s hope he’s right about Obama repeating Carter’s one-term tenure. Right now Obama’s standings in the polls–a little below 50 percent approval rating, occasionally peeking above 50–looks decent for such a bad economy and such a large number (about 65 percent) saying the country is on the wrong track. But I got curious about one particular parallel with Carter. So I dug back into the poll data for Carter starting in June of 1978 and plotted it next to Obama’s approval rating starting in June of 2010, and carry both through the mid-term election and up to early April 1979/2010. You can see the results in the chart below. Like Obama, Carter was holding up decently until the spring and summer of 1979, when Carter’s approval ratings collapsed, sometimes dipping below 30 percent. The same things that battered Carter–spiking gasoline prices, shortages, and inflation–might well do the same thing to Obama in the weeks and months ahead. In other words, there’s still plenty of time for Obama to emulate Carter’s face-planting style.
The sharp spike in Carter’s approval rating at the end of 1979 of course coincides with the Iranian hostage crisis, and the decent “rally-round-the-president” sensibilities of the American public. I’m not sure, for a variety of reasons, whether Obama would enjoy the same support if he gets into a foreign policy scrape; certainly his handling of Libya has not helped him. Anyway, Carter’s Iran crisis bump lasted long enough for him to vanquish Ted Kennedy in the Democratic primaries, but not long enough to prevent Ronald Reagan from wiping him out. And that brings me to my last point about Peggy’s thesis. Back in 1979, the Republican Party establishment almost to the last person thought Reagan was too strange and unappealing to independents, and therefore unelectable. Do not be so hasty in writing off the candidates the establishment deems unacceptable.