The overhyped political story of the moment is President Obama’s supposed comeback. That story notes that just weeks after his midterm “shellacking” he won congressional approval for a deal on taxes, the New START treaty, and a bill to let gays and lesbians serve openly in the military. But these victories do not have much bearing on whether Obama will be reelected in 2012. Liberals are happier with Obama now that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is history, but they were always going to be with him in 2012. There may not be a voter in America who is going to cast his ballot on the basis of New START. And the tax deal does not fundamentally change the terms of the next presidential election’s economic debate.
None of this is to say that Republicans can rest easy. Quite the contrary: The flaw in the comeback story is that President Obama has never had very far to come back. His job-approval numbers are in, and have never dipped below, the mid-40s. That’s not terrible, especially when you consider the high unemployment rate and the unpopularity of the stimulus and health-care bills. We should also keep in mind the extraordinary power of sitting presidents to set the agenda, frame issues, and take credit for achievements. Incumbents have run in ten of the presidential elections since World War II and won seven of them. At this point, President Obama has to be considered likely to join the winners.