It was inevitable.
The off-year elections, correctly or not, are being spun by much of the national media as a sign of Obama’s weakening political clout, particularly after he invested considerable time in both Virginia and New Jersey in an unsuccessful effort to prevent Republican victories in both states. Consistent with this spin, Obama’s approval ratings in most polls have now dipped below his proportion of the popular vote in 2008, suggesting he is beginning to lose some of his electoral support, particularly among independents. (Pollster’s composite rating has Obama at a 50.7% favorable rate, while RealClearPolitics puts it at 51.3).
Meanwhile, after leveling off in late September, opposition to health care reform has resumed its upward climb, with Pollster’s composite reading showing 49.5% disapproving and only 41.8% in favor. Despite an 81-seat advantage in the House, Obama’s health care legislation barely mustered majority support in that chamber and already is being described as dead on arrival in the Senate by moderate Democrats and Republicans. Other legislation, including banking reform and climate control, are mired in legislative debate and the White House is now taking hits for mishandling the Gitmo closing.
To add to Obama’s political woes, the latest economic figures put unemployment at 10.2%, breaking the symbolic double digit mark, with no expectation that this number will go down any time soon, and fueling Republicans’ complaints that the stimulus bill did little except deepen the budget deficit. Historically, the president’s party typically loses seats in the first midterm election, but the bad economic numbers are leading some pundits to predict a reprise of the 1994 typhoon that ended Democratic control of Congress. In the latest Gallup generic ballot for Congress – which typically understates Republican support – Republicans have now inched ahead of Democrats, 48-44%.
The confluence of all these factors suggests to some that Obama’s presidency is on the downward slide to Carterville, who was one and done in 1980. It also made the following story almost inevitable – the only question was which news outlet would take the lead. As it turns out, it was a Washington Times columnist Tony Blankley who, in a column titled “Hillary in 2012?” openly speculates that “it is not implausible that by 2012, the Democratic Party will see Hillary Clinton’s nomination as its best chance for keeping the White House.” Never mind that the Times is a conservative newspaper – if Blankley hadn’t floated this balloon, some other journalist would have. It is too good a story to ignore, particular in light of several polls that show Clinton is now more popular than the President.
Yes, Clinton has already sought to preempt this story by announcing that she has no intention of running for President in 2012, but what else can she say? “If unemployment continues to go up, health care stalls, we stumble in Afghanistan and the Republicans take control of Congress, hell yes I’m running!”? Remember, as Secretary of State, she can’t be blamed for any of the domestic policy failures attributed to the Obama administration. And she’s already hinted that she supports McChrystal’s call for more troops in Afghanistan, thus contributing to the pressure on Obama not to reduce the U.S. military presence there. More generally, she benefits from the perception, fueled by White House leaks, that she’s a marginal presence on the Obama foreign policy team, so she’s insulated on this score as well.
Here’s Blankley’s take on foreign policy, which he sees as Hillary’s trump card should she decide to run: “It isn’t forgotten that foreign affairs were the major policy disputes between Clinton and Obama during the primary. She accused Obama of “being naive” about agreeing to unconditional meetings with leaders of Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Syria and Cuba. She was — and is — a strong supporter of Israel and, during the campaign, was opposed to forcing Israel to freeze West Bank settlements unconditionally.
In April 2008, she was “deeply disturbed” by Russia’s move to strengthen links to the separatist regions of Georgia — Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the time, she called on then-President George W. Bush to send a senior representative to Tbilisi to “show our support.” She also condemned Russia for engaging in a “pressure campaign to prevent Ukraine from seeking deeper ties with NATO.”
Regarding Iran, she favored immediate economic sanctions — last year. She threatened military force if necessary to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. She threatened Iran with nuclear annihilation if it used nuclear weapons on Israel.
This year, as each of those issues emerged, President Obama took a different approach. He had to reverse himself on the unconditional settlement freeze. He let the Russians invade Georgia and was slow to condemn them for it. Iran is pushing the United States (and the world) into a corner on its nuclear development. Israeli/Palestinian “peace” talks are about 98 percent of the way to complete failure of administration objectives.
The worse things get in foreign affairs — and those dark clouds are getting darker and closer — the better Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy will look compared with President Obama’s.”
Never mind that a case can be made defending Obama on each of the issues Blankley cites. That’s not my point. Once this balloon has been released, it becomes fair game for every journalist. And the story is simply too juicy to ignore. Each time the issue is raised, no matter how often Clinton denies any intention of running, it becomes a bigger distraction for Obama and threatens to resurrect the political rivalry between the two.
How can Obama prevent this from happening? By experiencing a reversal in political fortune, beginning with the economy. Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush are the last two presidents to be seriously challenged within their own party, and both attempts occurred because of bad economic conditions blamed on the president. Although both Carter and Bush overcame their party challengers, each went down to defeat in the general election. It is tempting to blame their defeat on the intraparty challenge, but that would be reversing the causal arrow. In fact, both were opposed for their party’s nomination because they were already weak candidates likely to lose to a strong challenger in the general election. What this suggests is that Clinton won’t run against Obama unless the climate – particular the economy – offers a reprise of what we saw in 1980 and 1992.
When Ted Kennedy announced, on Nov. 7, 1979, that he was challenging Jimmy Carter for his party’s nomination, unemployment stood a shade under 6%, but the annual inflation rate was hovering above 13%, prompting the creation of the “misery index” as a combined measure of inflation and unemployment. Carter’s approval rating stood at 37%, although it soon jumped up in the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis.
Twelve years later, when Pat Buchanan announced in December, 1991, that he was challenging President Bush, unemployment stood at 7.25% and was climbing, although annual inflation was down to 3% and falling. Bush’s approval rating was down to 51% and heading down to a low of 29% midway through 1992.
Today unemployment is 10.2% and is forecast to remain high for the next several years, while inflation is – so far – negligible. Obama’s approval rating, meanwhile, hovers at 50%, and – as yet – shows no indication of bottoming out. But we are a long way from 2011, which is when any candidate contemplating a challenge to Obama will need to begin organizing.
Will Hillary Clinton challenge Obama in 2012? It’s far too early to tell, of course, but I think the chances are extremely remote. But that won’t prevent the pundits from speculating. It’s simply too good a story.
ERROR CORRECTION: The perils of late night blogging – I wrote that Pat Robertson challenged Bush in 1992 – I meant Pat Buchanan, of course. The text has been corrected.