Will Libya Help Obama in 2012? Depends on the Economy


New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria, and The Economist’s Lexington blog all agree: Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's fall in Libya is a victory for President Barack Obama. His "lead from behind" strategy (too soon to be called a doctrine) has passed its first test. The question remains: Will this help Obama in 2012? Moreover, will we even hear about Libya during the campaign?

If the economy is strong in fall 2012, probably not. If the economy is poor, probably yes, in a big way. And, if the economy is somewhere in the middle, Obama may utilize Libya to support the broader narrative that he is a competent, pragmatic executive.

To understand why, I look to Lynn Vavreck, who argues in her recent book, The Message Matters that almost all major presidential campaigns in the modern era can be called either "clarifying" or "insurgent." A clarifying campaign is one in which the candidate talks almost exclusively about the economy, "either taking credit for the good economic times or laying blame for the bad." Reagan nailed it when he asked voters: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" The successful insurgent campaign, by contrast, tries to change the conversation to an issue on which the opponent is perceived to be less popular; think of Bush 2000 and Carter 1976, who associated their opponents with a previous administration's scandals.

In 2008, Obama ran a clarifying campaign, blaming the Bush administration for the financial collapse and arguing that McCain represented more of the same. Foreign policy played second fiddle (remember Obama's position on the Georgia and Russia conflict? Neither do I). This time, however, he is not in the same position. So what are his options?

The good news for Obama is that incumbents tend to win; in the post-FDR era, incumbents have won eight elections and lost three. Moreover, presidents running on strong economies have won 100% of contests. If 2012 GDP growth is high and unemployment low, Obama will probably focus on the economy, ignore Libya, and win. If he campaigns in these conditions and still loses, I will eat my shoe.

This is, however, an unlikely scenario. The Council on Economic Advisors predicts that unemployment will be 8.2% in 2012, while the Fed predicts quarterly growth of between 3.3% and 3.7%. This opens up a delicate strategic calculus for the Obama team. Do they run on their domestic accomplishments while attempting to blame Republicans for the economic slump? Or do they try to change the focus of the conversation?

I predict that if the economy continues to struggle, the Obama campaign will run something of an insurgent campaign, focusing on the quality of his judgment in times of crisis across a variety of fields, while highlighting Republican intransigence and general indifference to the working class and poor people. In this scenario, Libya may be a piece of supporting evidence (along with some variant of "I killed Osama bin Laden") for the larger thesis that Obama is cool-headed and wise in times of crisis – the implicit contrast to Texas Gov. Rick Perry is alluring. This may work if voters are anxious about the economy, but do not trust Republicans to do better. I think we will hear about Libya precisely in proportion to how bad the economy is. Good economy, no Libya. Bad economy, and perhaps Obama will be tempted to strike majestic poses on aircraft carriers with the rebels.

This is all assuming Libya does not explode into anarchy in the next 15 months, which is still a real possibility. If that happens, AND the economy tanks, Obama is pretty much toast. From this point of view, it seems that Obama's fate rests on events that he cannot control. It makes you wonder: Who would ever want this job?

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