History Outlines the 2012 Election


Is there anything that can derail President Barack Obama now? Basking in the success of the operation to take out Osama bin Laden, Obama has seen that a 4.6% job approval bump can counter any charge calling him weak on foreign policy issues. Foreign policy is no longer his Achilles heal. I want to argue, using the presidential election of 1948 as an example, that even the sluggish economy need not ring his demise. Voters will still have to make a causal connection between the president and the performance of the economy. In such a political environment, the GOP cannot be the party of “No.” It must be closer to one of, “We can do better.”

“It's the Economy, Stupid” was the brilliant slogan devised by Bill Clinton and adviser James Carville in 1992 to bring down then President George H. W. Bush Sr. from stratospheric levels of approval in the 80% range after the Gulf War. The point was that despite military success, you had to be a dimwit not to notice that people were hurting on Main Street. In this election, Bush was painted as out of touch; Clinton, on other hand, could “feel your pain.”

One can argue as to the relative importance of winning the first Gulf War vs. killing bin Laden. Obama's bump is nowhere near that of Bush's in 1991. At the same time, the economic problems today are universally acknowledged to be much worse – no one thought to compare 1991 to the Great Depression, as many do when explaining our current economic situation. Despite slightly more encouraging jobs numbers – which may be temporary – unemployment has ticked back up to 9.0%. According to the logic of '92, then, shouldn't Obama be a goner?

Not necessarily. James Fearon's important second-chapter contribution in the book Democracy, Accountability, and Representation is titled, “Electoral Accountability and the control of Politicians: Selecting Good Types versus Sanctioning Poor Performance.” Fearon makes the following point: “Voters need not see elections as mechanisms that establish accountability; instead, they might understand elections as opportunities to choose a 'good type' of political leader, one who would act on their behalf independent of reelection incentives.”

Let's break that down. Elections, says Fearon, need not be about punishment or reward – about throwing out the bums or rewarding the “good guys” for positive changes in the pocketbook. Elections can be about competence, in which bad economic conditions are not always blamed on a commander-in-chief who is perceived as doing a good job, all things considered.

The pivotal election of Harry S. Truman in 1948 is case in point. In 1944, the year before Truman assumed office, the unemployment rate stood at 1.2%. By 1946, it had shot up to 3.9% and remained at 3.8% in 1948, the last year of Truman's first term. The years from 1945-1948 were marred by steal, coal, auto, and rail strikes, and inflation that led to rocketing food prices and even scarcity. As if that were not enough, Truman managed to partially alienate labor, a key constituency, by threatening to draft striking workers. Six months before the election in 1948, Truman's approval rating had sunk to 36%.

Till the very end, he was written off as dead. “Dewey beats Truman” read the Chicago Tribune headline on election day.

And yet Truman won. Fearon's theory accounts for the victory nicely: Voters judged Truman to be competent and did not make a causal connection between him and the state of the economy.

Obama, at least from today's standpoint, is no Truman. But his approval rating stands at 51.6% despite hard times – 16 points above where Truman was when he won.

If Republicans are to recapture the White House, they must allow for the possibility that Obama will not be blamed for the economy, or at the very least will be judged more competent than any Republican challenger. If Truman was gritty, Obama is cool. He has no problem exuding the aura of the adult in the room.

All this means that, “Are you better off today than four years ago?” may not cut it as a GOP argument in 2012. Blocking the Obama agenda on the assumption that the public prefers “No” to “Yes” – however misguided that “Yes” may be – is courting disaster. “No we won't” leads nowhere; “We can do better” is the road to victory.

Photo CreditTruman Library