It isn’t quite panic yet, but the sounds emanating from Obamaland are certainly nervous. If you are David Axelrod, chief strategist for President Obama’s reelection campaign, you are well aware of your idol’s fall, and doubtless less than thrilled to get this question from CNN’s Candy Crowley: “Something that the president said this week struck me. . . . He said it’s not as cool to be an Obama supporter as it was in 2008. . . . I think he’s right. I think it’s not as cool to be an Obama supporter now. How do you get cool back into this?”
Gee, how do you compare a campaign that was based entirely on vapid promises and vaporous sentiment with a referendum on actual job performance? Axelrod denied (unconvincingly) that the 2008 campaign had been a “cult of personality,” and assured Crowley that once the campaign gets “fully engaged and the choices become clear, you are going to see a great deal of activity out there on his behalf.” In a signal of just how feeble the case for Obama’s reelection is, Axelrod fell back on the bogeyman: “I think one of the things that’s going to inform that campaign is whether that Republican candidate is going to yield to some of the forces within his own party or her own party that is driving their — their party further to the right.”
For the record, there has never been a time in the past 50 years that the Democrats have not claimed to detect a frightening rightward tilt in the GOP — even as the party has nominated such wild-eyed radicals as George H. W. Bush, John McCain, and George W. (“compassionate conservative”) Bush.
Crowley pointed out that support for the president among independents has declined from 52 percent in the 2008 election to 42 percent today, and that even among staunch liberals, 89 percent of whom voted for Obama in 2008, support has dipped to 64 percent. How does the Obama team recreate a victory in light of these numbers?
She might have added so much more to that question. She might have asked how an incumbent requests reelection when the unemployment rate is at 9.1 percent. Even more worrisome, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fully half of the jobless are now long-term unemployed, meaning they have been without jobs for 27 weeks or longer. That is the highest percentage of long-term unemployed since the Labor Department starting keeping such records in 1948.
She might have asked how an incumbent achieves a vote of confidence when commodity prices on food and fuel are rising and, relatedly, the value of the dollar is plunging; the housing market has yet to recover from the crash despite (or, more likely, because of) the president’s Home Affordable Modification Plan, which has prevented markets from clearing; a record one in seven Americans now receives Food Stamps; one out of six Americans is on Medicaid; and a whopping 62.5 percent of respondents say the nation is on the wrong track.
When the economy is strong, elections can turn on a variety of issues. But when the economy is poor, elections are seldom about anything else. The 1980 race was illustrative.
Though the Carter/Reagan race is remembered now as a landslide for Reagan, the contours of the victory were not apparent during the campaign. As late as October 29, Gallup had the race as a dead heat, with Reagan at 44 percent and Carter at 43 (it was a three-man race). Other polling showed larger margins for Reagan but nothing like the ten -point margin of victory he achieved. At the time, the contest was perceived as close.
It was after the first and only debate, a week before Election Day, that voters definitively moved into Reagan’s column. At the time, inflation was running at 13.5 percent, unemployment was 7 percent, and interest rates were 21 percent. American hostages remained in Tehran. President Carter’s approval ratings hovered in the 30s during the final year of his tenure.
Why wasn’t Carter perceived as hopelessly weak? Perhaps because as bad as things were, voters needed to be confident about the challenger’s fitness. Carter had succeeded to some degree in frightening voters about Reagan’s (you guessed it) right-wing extremism. Reagan’s reassuring debate performance allayed those fears. And Reagan’s summation drilled to the heart of voters’ concerns. Ask yourself, Reagan advised, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
The economy today is in some respects worse than it was in 1980. Barring a catastrophe, little else will matter in 2012. Any credible Republican can defeat President Obama — which is why Mr. Axelrod is already smearing as “extremist” a person whose name he does not know.
— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2011 Creators Syndicate, Inc.