Each presidential election is different. The factors that led to an easy reelection win for Richard Nixon are quite different from the factors that led to Benjamin Harrison’s reelection loss. Yet there is one issue that has been dominant every time an incumbent president has come up for reelection: Whether the president was actually any good at his job. So will the fact that Obama is an awful president be the main issue in 2012?
Historically, whether a president is very good at running the country is usually the most prevalent issue when he is up for reelection. Even controlling for other factors such as amount of powder in wigs and size of mutton chops, if a president is horrible at his job, that is the biggest indicator that he won’t be reelected. In fact, many say the point of having elections is to periodically be able to get rid of a president who isn’t very good. For instance, back in 1980, the fact that Jimmy Carter was a terrible, awful president was by far the biggest issue of the election. Any suggestion that his opponent was a right-wing extremist was outweighed by the fact that Carter clearly had no idea what he was doing as commander-in-chief and people felt it was best he move on to an occupation like building houses, where he was less likely to cause major harm.
Many expect the 2012 election to play out similarly, as Obama has failed in ways that rival even Carter’s failures. Internationally, he’s hypocritically in a war in Libya, which he can’t coherently explain and which even his own lawyers think violates the War Powers Act. Domestically, well, it seems almost mean spirited to point out the facts there. In fact, the only place Obama hasn’t done worse than Carter is in being bullied by lagomorphs. So it would seem an easy task for whoever Obama’s opponent is to just say, “Look what Obama’s done! LOOK AT IT!” Then voters will conclude that they shouldn’t return Obama to a job that’s clearly above his pay grade.
This seems like simple analysis, but the voters of today aren’t the voters of 1980. Well, some are, but they’re a lot older and now know what the internet is. And everyone is in to ironically liking stuff, like bad pop songs and, perhaps, horrible presidents. Anyway, the point is that voter expectations of the president may be quite different now, and maybe whether or not a president is very good at his job may not be the major factor it used to be.
In fact, it’s quite arguable that voters may have already factored in Obama’s incompetence when they first elected him. Before being president, Carter was the governor of Georgia and a naval officer, so there were some valid reasons to think he could possibly be a decent leader of our nation. When he wasn’t, people actually seemed surprised by exactly how bad he was. Obama, on the other hand, was a community organizer — a made up job with less accountability than the guy who rips your movie ticket at the theater — and a mediocre legislator who just voted “yes,” “no,” and “present” on things. There was absolutely nothing in his resume that would lead a reasonable person to believe he would have any competency as a president. In that light, he can hardly be considered a disappointment. Really, Obama’s main promise before being elected was to be the first black president, and that is a promise he has kept. Another promise was to cheer America on with meaningless slogans, and while they have become more abstract (“Win the future!”), he has kept that promise as well. Finally, Obama was elected because he could properly enunciate things while reading from a teleprompter, which he has continued to do. So by the low standard with which he was elected, he could be considered a success.
Plus, are voters going to blame Obama for how horrible he is at being president when it is arguably Bush’s fault? By the end of the Bush presidency, people were so dissatisfied with the divisiveness that they clung to the first happy, smiley guy they saw. If it weren’t for people growing so tired of the Bush era, it would have been quite unlikely they would elect a president so obviously inept. So if the Obama presidency is Bush’s fault, why would voters take their anger out on Obama, who is really just a victim in all this and is probably just as confused and bewildered as voters are at how he ended up as president.
And maybe we’ve simply evolved as a nation past the need for a competent president. Having a good president was an absolute necessity early on in our nation’s history when we were still struggling to survive. But now even our poor people are fat, and no matter how bad the president is, it’s not likely that we’ll starve to death. Plus, having a good president may just make things too easy. Remember how easy it was to succeed in the 80s? It hardly took any effort, and that probably made us lazy. But with the way the economy is now and with added things like Obamacare trying to crush small businesses, only the really smart and the hardest workers will to be able to make any traction. So, in a way, instead of looking at Obama as a horrible president, you could simply see him as an added layer of difficulty to spur us on to be even better.
Still, perhaps 2012 will play out like elections in the past, and Obama will be unceremoniously dumped for being less than useless. But then again, maybe we really have changed in our expectation of whether a president should have basic competency. If Republicans base their campaign around “Obama is horrible, and our guy will actually know what he’s doing,” they may be making an argument voters just don’t care about anymore.