President Barack Obama had barely finished uttering the oath of office when the talk started that he would be a one term president. This political doomsday talk was chalked up to a few bored reporters looking for something contrarian to say about Obama, the deluded hopes of hard bitten, spoil sport conservatives for a failed Obama presidency, and a few naysayers among economists who repeatedly warned that economic collapse would do in a young, inexperienced president. The first two reasons to think Obama would get a quick boot can be easily shrugged off.
Tying Obama’s White House fate to public jitters over a hemorrhaging economy can’t be so easily brushed aside. Obama pretty much said as much in an interview on NBC’s Today Show two weeks after he was sworn in that if he didn’t deliver he’d be “a one term proposition.” This may not be a totally accurate prediction since in four years a foreign blow up, terrorist attack, cataclysmic natural disaster, a squabbling, headless, and discredited GOP and any of a number of other unforeseen things could make him shine. Any of them could just as easily be his ticket back to the White House. Still, the rise or fall of the economy is the only thing for now that anyone seems to think matters.
Obama has smartly hedged his bets on judging his presidency on the speed of an economic turnaround by repeatedly damping down expectations that economic recovery is just around the bend, and that he can wave a magic wand and make the economic pain instantly disappear. Obama’s pleadings, warnings, and cautionary notes are his back door admission that Americans want and demand that he do something, and do it now to reverse the economic slide, and that there’s little margin for error, and none for failure, if he doesn’t.
Recent presidential history amply shows that the public is brutally unforgiving when the man in the White House doesn’t immediately turn things around. In a look at how six of eight presidents fared since 1948 when the economy hit the skids or appeared to skid, the scorecard for presidents winning and losing because of economic woes is a draw. Three were beaten and three beat back their challengers. It came down to whether voters really perceived that their economic plight, or rather pain, would show no sign of a cure if they kept the incumbent in office. But even more important presidents had to do one crucial thing in the face of rising unemployment, recession, inflation, and public grumbles if they wanted to stay on the job. They had to assure a majority of voters that things would and could get better for the voters if they stayed in the White House and that any likely opponent couldn't do any better.
Presidents also had to have a lot of luck. W. Bush had that in 2004. He won reelection in part because memories were still fresh of the 9/11 terror attack. Bush adroitly played the terror card and convinced enough voters that he could beat back any new terrorist threat. But hard times, plant closures, farm foreclosures, and high unemployment even then had gripped big sections of the Midwest and as Democrats gleefully noted, growth was much slower during Bush’s first term than during Clinton's second term.Yet Bush also won in big part because overall unemployment and economic growth had slightly improved in the run up to the 2004 election. Bush used this to spin the news, even bad economic news, into a gain. He solemnly pledged there would be more economic improvement for voters if he was reelected. That didn’t work for Republican rival John McCain in the make or break wind down months to the 2008 campaign. The financial plunge in September virtually sealed his loss. Obama relentlessly painted a stark, grim and scary picture for workers and the middle class that the crash was Bush’s doing and by extension McCain’s doing. He masterfully sold the idea that things would only get worse if McCain was elected. He directly linked the perceived failure of Bush to right the nation’s economic ship to McCain. And that McCain’s policies would result in still bigger deficits, the prospect of even greater inflation and a more intense recession. Obama made voters believe that Republican economic policy would not promote recovery and economic security but increase economic pain for millions of wage earners; put bluntly economic collapse. Obama has literally bet the bank that that the economic stimulus will turn the economic tide. Packs of Republicans and not a few economists warn that it won’t. A few such as Rush Limbaugh even hope that it won’t.Economic failure alone may not spell a one term presidency for Obama. But economic success, even the perception of success, will help insure that Obama won’t be another Jimmy Carter.Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).