Up until now, Obama’s strategy, or, as George W. Bush would say, “strategery” for his re-election bid has confused me. The president appeared to be fumbling the ball whenever it was passed his way, and seemed to be walking into an uphill battle for re-election against the backdrop of a weak economy and a crushing debt, all of which could be used against the president by a halfway credible, fiscally-oriented Republican nominee. The president’s approval rating was underwater in key Northern states needed by the Democrats to get to the magic number of 270 electoral votes, including New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Indeed, President Obama’s election in 2008 began to appear more and more as if it were a fluke, the result of Bush fatigue, the financial collapse, and an especially weak Republican nominee.
Especially perplexing was President Obama’s approach to the debt issue. With economic and fiscal issues seemingly at the core of the coming election cycle, Obama’s decision to don full Paul Krugman jacket on entitlements and spending made little sense. Given that Republicans had thrown down the gauntlet at their endzone, embracing Paul Ryan’s plan to re-organize entitlements in a way that would individualize, means-test, and devolve to the states many of Washington’s most popular programs, Obama would have been far better off, it seemed, had he cast his lot with the folks at the 50-yard-line, perhaps by embracing, in a serious way, one of the centrist deficit reduction plans, such as Bowles-Simpson or Domenici-Rivlin. In so doing, Obama would be essentially “pulling a Bill Clinton,” and stealing the issue of entitlement reform away from the Republicans, as Clinton did with welfare reform. The president’s base would have nowhere to go, and Republicans would have to decide whether to compromise with the president, and allow him to be the president who “saves” Social Security and Medicare, or stand their ground and make Obama seem reasonable to swing voters.
Instead, the president dithered for months following his massive midterm losses and then gave a speech in which he set himself up to be the unabashed defender of the legacy of FDR and LBJ, suggesting that entitlement reform was necessary, and then proceeding to take off the table every possible manner in which to reform entitlements. In so doing, the president retreated to his own endzone on the debt issue, resulting in polls showing that Americans were evenly divided as to whether Ryan and the Republicans or Obama and the Democrats should be trusted on fiscal matters. Entitlements, which had long been a Democratic issue, now seemed up for grabs. None of this made any sense. It was like Obama wanted to lose.
But given the events of the past week, the reasoning behind Obama’s moves are becoming far more clear. With Osama bin Laden dead, and with the subsequent attempt to kill Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, it’s becoming evident that the president is following the Richard Nixon playbook from 1971, and is attempting to introduce a foreign policy element into a campaign that would otherwise center on domestic issues on which the president simply could not win.
In Allan Lichtman’s book, The Keys to the White House, Lichtman dubs Richard Nixon, “The Turnaround President,” due to Nixon’s ability to pivot from a fairly lackluster first term in office to an easy re-election. Lichtman argues that Nixon entered his third year in office with bleak re-election prospects. His party had received a drubbing in the midterm elections, his domestic accomplishments had been sparse, and he was presiding over an economic recovery that wasn’t hitting home with the American people. Moreover, Nixon continued to be mired in an endless land war in Asia. Nixon turned things around by using 1971 and 1972 to focus on two things: foreign policy and job growth. In terms of foreign policy, Lichtman argues, Nixon pulled off a coup via detente with the Soviet Union and by opening the door to China, resulting in eased tensions with these Communist nations, a welcome development in an America where perpetual military conflict to contain Communism seemed inevitable. Nixon’s foreign policy successes boosted his case for re-election, making him seem like a serious president.
The other plank of Nixon’s re-election strategy, according to Lichtman, was to get the short-term economy moving again. The recovery of the early ’70s had finally reached the average American in 1972, just in time for Nixon to reap the political spoils. Now, I think most economic conservatives would argue that Nixon’s policies of price controls and economic stimulus had little to do with the economic recovery, and may have actually hindered the recovery, in the sense that the recovery may have been quicker and more robust had Nixon not employed Keynesian economics. But none of that matters to the bulk of Americans, who arbitrarily reward or punish the sitting president based on the economic conditions on the ground.
Fast-forward to the present day. President Obama, like Nixon, is attempting to introduce a new foreign policy element into this election cycle through a series of attempted foreign policy successes. Instead of detente with the Soviets and “Nixon going to China,” though, we’re going to get a series of dead terrorists. The optics will be this: Obama the Ditherer becomes Obama the Terrorist Hunter.
Further, the president will claim credit for the American economy’s recovery, presuming that jobs continue growing at least at their current pace. April marks the third month in a row in which over 200,000 jobs were added to the U.S. economy. Pretty much every economist agrees that this is a paltry sum, and that an economy at this stage of recovery should be adding far more jobs. But unfortunately, Americans won’t be able to compare an alternate universe, where President Nikki Haley is presding over 400,000 new jobs a month, with the actual universe in which Obama is president, and in which the federal government is stepping on the nation’s toes. Instead, the message by fall of 2012 will be that Obama is “creating” between 2 and 3 million jobs a year, and that Republican promises of greater fortunes would constitute the uncertainty that comes with “changing horses midstream.”
Finally, President Nixon had one final advantage in 1972, and that was the Democratic base and its insistence that its presidential nominee be the most extreme, abstract, unelectable nominee possible, i.e., someone designed to “send a message” as opposed to win an election. Indeed, the nomination of George McGovern turned what would have been a modest Nixon re-election, based on the economic rebound and foreign policy accomplishments, into a 49-state rout. Similarly, the nomination of one of the GOP base’s flavors of the month, such as Herman Cain, Donald Trump, etc, would lead to an extremely lopsided election result, as Obama’s bad ideas defeat the GOP nominee’s lack of ideas, other than the idea that “Obama sucks.”
Further, even if Republicans can be pulled away from the psychologically satisfying act of going down in flames with Herman, Sarah, Donald, or Michele, the introduction of a strong foreign policy component into the campaign mixes the field up a bit, and does so in a way that makes it harder for someone like Paul Ryan or Mitch Daniels to win the nomination. Races that involve foreign policy generally lower the stock of wonky, green eyeshade types, and raise the stock of candidates who exude strength and/or gravitas. This may lead candidates like Rudy Giuliani, who previously may have stayed out of the race, to jump in, while Ryan and Daniels, who were flirting with getting in, decide to stay out. And that of course complicates the Republican calculus even further. It was hard enough before adding a foreign policy element to find an understated social conservative with a primary focus on economic and fiscal issues who could make both the base and swing voters happy, and who was an excellent politcian and serious policy wonk as well. Adding the foreign policy prong makes a hard task seem nearly impossible.
To sum up, Richard Nixon bet the farm in 1971-72 on the notion that short-term job growth and a few big foreign policy triumphs would salvage a lackluster first term and yield a second term for the president. President Obama is likewise putting all of his re-election chips on continued job growth and as many dead terrorists as possible. Team Obama is wagering that jobs and dead terrorists beat either austerity or red meat, and that swing voters will allow Obama to kick the entitlement can down the road as long as things appear to be moving in the right direction. Whether the American people will see through this strategy is anyone’s guess.