In every business transaction, we evaluate the capabilities of the people providing the service. Each mechanic, plumber, barber, hair stylist, doctor, lawyer or even movie “Indian Chief” is evaluated. We go back to, or “re-hire” the good ones and stop calling the ones who do not produce the results we want.
Sometimes they will try to tell us that their service didn’t do what we wanted because they were a victim of bad circumstances or bad luck. Occasionally, we might have reason to believe them, but when we keep not seeing the desired results we go elsewhere.
For the American people as a whole, the same thing is true of politicians, especially the President. Members of Congress can blame their colleagues and, to some extent it is true. Even then, political parties see gains or losses in political power based on public evaluation. Some Congressional districts and states are essentially locked into one party or another, but, as a whole, the country can change the direction of Congress.
Most Presidential elections are a referendum on the incumbent, even if he is no longer running. Ronald Reagan’s popularity helped make George H. W. Bush President. No other sitting President since Coolidge has seen a member of his own party elected to replace him.
Any election where the incumbent is standing for reelection is always about that incumbent. When times are good, the President can run on that fact. The public reelected Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush on that basis. Times were at least “good enough” and there was no reason to change.
The problem comes for Presidents when the situation is worse than when they took over. Their supporters want to argue that circumstances beyond their control or “bad luck” is the reason for the problems and that no one could have done any better. Past history shows that Americans don’t buy that. In fact, they shouldn’t.
The Presidency is essentially a leadership position. If we wanted someone to sit in a rudderless boat without oars, anyone could fill the role. Presidents make decisions and those decisions have consequences. We evaluate them on the results of the decisions.
When Jimmy Carter became President, the economy and the world situation were both bad. He backed the Iranian revolution and helped push the Shah out of power. That decision was disastrous for Carter. The Iranian “Hostage crisis” essentially destroyed his Presidency.
On the home front, the results were just as bad. High unemployment was matched with high inflation. Carter may have helped solve the situation in the long run by appointing Paul Volcker as head of the Federal Reserve, but , in the fall of 1980, the economy as a mess and Iran was a disaster.
His supporters told the public he was a victim of bad luck and the Presidency “was too big for any one man.” When the Republicans nominated an ‘extreme right—wing” former movie actor, Ronald Reagan, for President, the Democrats hoped they could convince the public that Reagan was too scary a choice. It didn’t work. Reagan won the Electoral College 498-49. Four years later, the economy was recovering and all the talk about the Presidency being too big for one man disappeared.
The situation in 2012 looks a lot like 1980. We have a President who took over when the economy was not doing well, but things have gotten worse. Mr. Obama has made, or refused to make, certain decisions. Those choices have had consequences.
Unemployment is a major problem. The unemployment rate in the summer of 2012 may be the biggest factor in his reelection prospects. Whether it is ideology or political calculation, he has made choices to make the situation worse.
He has continued to block offshore drilling the in Gulf of Mexico even in the face of court orders. The NLRB has blocked the opening of a Boeing plant in South Carolina which would have employed thousands. The refusal to make a decision on a pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico has delayed a truly shovel-ready project which would have employed thousands.
The Presidential election of 2012 will be a referendum on Barack Obama’s Presidency. He is raising a billion dollars for his campaign. We are told he will use it to paint his opponent and “scary” or “out of the mainstream.” We can expect a very nasty campaign season.
But, in the end, people will look at the state of the economy, and the world and make a call. They will not care whether Mr. Obama has been “lucky” or “unlucky.” They will look at the results. I expect the results to match 1980. The polling may show a tight race for a while, but in the end, Obama will lose, badly.