Why Republicans are suddenly afraid of Obama

After their midterm triumph, you'd think they'd be lining up for a chance to run against him. But they're not

Published March 1, 2011 1:01PM (EST)

President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, Monday, Feb. 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, Monday, Feb. 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (Carolyn Kaster)

At Politico on Monday, Jonathan Martin does a nice job explaining the "reality check" that Republicans are now waking up to: Barack Obama seems to be in decent political shape as the 2012 cycle begins, while "breezy predictions of Obama turning out to be the next Jimmy Carter were premature."

That it's come to this shouldn't be that surprising. As we noted over and over last year as Obama and his fellow Democrats braced for a midterm drubbing, the two-year verdict on a presidency is often extremely misleading -- as the examples of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both attest. With his party running Washington and with the economy reeling, it was pretty much inevitable that the first half of Obama's first term would play out the way it did.

What is surprising, though, is how quickly it's come to this. When Reagan and Clinton suffered miserable midterms, they were both written off -- by their political opponents, by the media and even by members of their own party -- as sure one-termers, and the assessment held until well into their third years in office.

Remember that Clinton's defensive assertion of his own relevance as president came not in the immediate wake of November 1994 midterms, but more than five months later, on April 18, 1995. By that point, the Republican presidential field for 1996 was pretty much in place. And even though Clinton's poll numbers showed steady improvement in the months after that (while support for the GOP Congress and its public face, Newt Gingrich, collapsed), conventional wisdom late in '95 still held that Clinton was the clear underdog heading into '96. For instance, when a poll in early November '95 -- just before the famous government shutdown -- showed Clinton's approval climbing to an 18-month high (52 percent) and gave him a 10-point lead (53 to 43 percent) over GOP front-runner Bob Dole, political analyst Stuart Rothenberg offered this assessment on CNN:

Frankly, I don't think the president is quite as strong as he now appears for a couple of reasons. One, I expect the political debate to be very different next spring and next summer, with different sorts of issues being addressed including tax reform; and second of all, I was looking at some of these state polls, and Bill Clinton is leading Bob Dole in Virginia, in Arizona, in Florida. I don't know anybody who follows these sorts of polls and these races who believes that the president is really going to win those states.

Of course, Clinton went on to carry Florida over Dole with ease in '96. He also won Arizona and finished less than 2 points shy of victory in Virginia. Overall, Clinton netted 379 electoral votes after a campaign that is now remembered (if it is remembered at all) for being particularly boring, uneventful and predictable. But it wasn't until the end of 1995 and the early months of 1996 that it began dawning on the political class that this would be the outcome. Until then, the "Republican Revolution" of '94 had distorted most political analysis: Look how thoroughly Americans had rejected Clinton and his party -- there's just no way they'll rally back to the Democrats two years later!

Similarly, it wasn't until well into 1983 that conventional wisdom about Reagan's prospects shifted. Immediately after the '82 midterms, it was widely assumed that he wouldn't stand for reelection in 1984 (when he'd be 73). And if he did run, many believed that Reagan would face a serious challenge in the Republican primaries, with a growing number of conservative activists convinced he'd sold them out. Jack Kemp, Jesse Helms and William Armstrong all saw their names floated as potential challengers. By early '83, a crowded Democratic pack -- headlined by a former vice president (Walter Mondale) and a genuine American hero (John Glenn) -- was off and running for the right to oppose Reagan. Only after several quarters of strong economic growth in 1983 did Democrats and the media begin taking seriously the idea that Reagan was well-positioned to win a second term -- which he ended up doing in a 49-state landslide.

But with Obama -- whose party lost more than 60 House seats, six Senate seats, and a slew of governorships and state legislative chambers last fall -- this evolution of conventional wisdom has played out at warp speed. Barely a month after the midterms, prominent conservatives were already admitting that he was looking good to win a second term. On Dec. 17, Charles Krauthammer branded Obama the new "comeback kid," and a few days later, Michael Barone warned his fellow conservatives that Obama was well-positioned for '12. By early January, Karl Rove was calling Obama "a slight favorite" for reelection. And lately, Mike Huckabee -- who might be the front-runner for the GOP nomination, if only he'd get in the race -- has been making headlines by talking up Obama's strength, as he did to Politico:

"The people that are sitting around saying, 'He’s definitely going to be a one-term president. It’s going to be easy to take him out,' they’re obviously political illiterates -- political idiots, let me be blunt."

Thus, the Republican presidential field for 2012 is now most notable for its lack of depth. No one, it seems, wants to be the first to jump in, and those who seem most interested in running have clear, significant liabilities. Meanwhile, potentially stronger prospects like Huckabee, Chris Christie and (maybe) Jeb Bush seem content to wait for 2016. Granted, what looks like a weak GOP field today could seem much different six months or a year from now, if the modest economic improvement we've seen recently stalls and unemployment begins rising again; then, even an underwhelming GOP nominee would be well positioned to beat Obama.

But for now, the consensus of the political class seems to be that Obama will be reelected in 2012 -- and Republicans seem to be buying into it. It didn't take much for this to happen. Obama's approval rating is up slightly, but it's not like he's closing in on 60 percent. And the economy seems to be improving, but unemployment is still over 9 percent, and no one seems to think a sharp decline is on the horizon. But still, Obama is the early favorite for reelection. It took far more significant developments -- and time -- for Reagan and Clinton to gain the same status after their midterm setbacks.

My guess is that Obama is now benefiting from memories of the Reagan and Clinton experiences. When Reagan's party took a hit in '82, you had to go all the way back to Harry Truman to find a president who'd recovered from a similar drubbing to win reelection. It was easy to write him off. And even with Clinton, just 12 years later, it was still tempting: The scope of his party's defeat was more severe than Reagan's -- by 1994, many observers believed the Democrats would never lose the House in their lifetimes. So it was easy to conclude that Clinton's troubles were far more severe than Reagan's had been (even though his midterm approval rating was the same as Reagan's). But now that we have both the Reagan and Clinton examples to point to, our instinct is to assume that Obama's first term will play out similarly -- and to look for evidence that confirms this. Thus, his lame-duck successes and modest gains in popularity have taken on outsize significance. We may not be there yet, but we all know (or think we know) where this is heading, because we've seen it before.

In this sense, a parallel can be drawn to the early months of 2003, when George W. Bush was launching the Iraq war and (initially) it seemed successful. His approval rating, high going into the war, was very strong and his party had posted stunning gains in the previous fall's midterms. You might have expected Democrats to be reluctant to challenge them. And yet, not long after Baghdad fell, Democrats gathered for their first presidential debate in South Carolina.

Why were they so eager to run? Probably because the example of the previous President Bush was fresh in their minds. In early 1991, after driving Iraq out of Kuwait in the first Gulf War, George H.W. Bush's approval rating had soared to around 90 percent. As the troops came home in triumph, there were clear signs that the domestic economy was growing weaker. But the nearly universal assumption in the political world was that Bush would be unbeatable in '92. Thus, the Democratic presidential race was essentially frozen for the spring and summer of 1991, as one top-tier prospect after another refused to run. Eventually, the party was stuck with what was regarded as its weakest presidential field in memory -- Paul Tsongas, Doug Wilder, Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey, Jerry Brown and some guy named Bill Clinton. The setup in early 2003 seemed eerily similar, so John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt, Howard Dean and Bob Graham jumped in the race even as Bush was taking his (premature) Iraq victory lap. And sure enough, Bush's numbers did return to earth -- although not for the reason Democrats originally thought they would (the economy, not Iraq, was supposed to be his undoing) and not quite enough to cost him reelection in 2004.

With today's Republicans, the logic is reversed. Unlike the Democrats of early 2003, who saw a chance to become the next Bill Clinton, the Republicans of early 2011 seem to fear the prospect of becoming the next Bob Dole.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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