While President Obama invoking Ronald Reagan in his speech last night, referencing that great and good man by name three times, his address was anything but Reaganesque. His demeanor was not cheery, his language not uplifting, the content not unifying. He attacked his critics with a harshness the most accomplished domestic policy president of the last century reserved for the enemies of the United States, enemies of freedom.
This was not a speech of a man confident in his ideas, but a man anxious about his electoral prospects. It seems that speech did give us a taste of his coming campaign, an attempt to define his adversaries as extremists who have seized control of the GOP from its more responsible members, and to engage in class warfare, casting himself as Robin Hood looking out for the less fortunate and the middle class.
I don’t think his speech last night helped his electoral prospects. He sought to cast himself as the moderate, in sync with American opinion, but came across as petulant, angry that he couldn’t get House Republicans to see things his way.
So, just what are his electoral prospects? Finding that the partisan breakdown in the “popular vote for the House of Representatives” in a mid-term election often provides a good forecast of the subsequent presidential election, Michael Barone finds that the president’s prospects aren’t good:
In the three most recent cases, the off-year percentages for the House are almost exactly the same as the presidential year percentages for president. However, Republicans signally failed to replicate their 1994 House percentage in the 1996 presidential contest. . . .
Obviously, the three most recent examples portend an unhappy 2012 for President Obama and the Democrats, while the 1994-1996 example is a precedent for an incumbent Democratic president overcoming a “thumping” (George W. Bush’s term) in the off-year and winning reelection by a nontrivial margin. What I think these numbers suggest is that, absent a considerable redefinition by the incumbent president, he or his party’s nominee is likely to run just about as well (or poorly) in the next presidential election as his party’s House candidates did in the most recent off-year elections. The off-year vote represents a settled opinion on how the president and his party have performed in nearly two years in office, and unless the president takes a significantly different course toward governing, as Bill Clinton arguably did in 1995-1996, then that settled verdict remains more or less in place. Or so the numbers suggest.
The president’s speech last night suggests he’s not willing to shift course, still favoring “investments” (i.e. increased federal expenditures) to create jobs. Despite the evidence of the last two-and-one-half years, he still believes government spending is the key to economic revival and increased employment.
And this is one reason, I believe, Obama’s in trouble for 2012, he’s out of step with the American people on several key domestic issues, including federal spending, health care reform and even on such foreign policy issues as our alliance with Israel. The discordance between his views and those of most Americans is perhaps his greatest weakness going into 2012.
But, he will have several strengths, including the power of a well-funded political machine as well as the support of a media establishment eager for his opponents to fail and unwilling (on the whole) to offer objective coverage of his failures, including the various scandals involving his administration. And, as Barone has noted,
there will be a reluctance on the part of many voters, understandable in light of our history, to reject the first black president. I’m convinced, though I cannot prove, that Americans who feel this way far outnumber those few who cannot abide seeing a black man in the White House.
To counterbalance those strengths, the president will carry a good deal of baggage, including the sour economy and the failure of his $800-billion dollar “stimulus” to create jobs. Not just that, he’s not a particularly good administrator and is anything but the post-partisan conciliator we were promised in the 2008 campaign.
Indeed, he’s quite the opposite, divisive, highly partisan and often quite petty. And unlike the Gipper, in his speeches of late, he comes across as aloof, more professorial than inspirational; he seems to lecturing us, reminding us to eat our peas, rather than motivating us, assuring us that our best days are yet to come.
And that quality, that stern aloofness, particularly in contrast to the image he cut in 2008, is going to cost him when he runs for reelection next fall.