When Barack Obama scored the biggest electoral landslide for a Democrat since LBJ four years ago, it was nonetheless easy to see political trouble – serious political trouble – for him on the horizon.
Wall Street had just melted down, the economy was in a Depression-like free fall, and the nature of the crash argued against a quick comeback. It was the perfect recipe for a fleeting presidential honeymoon, a speedy approval rating drop, a midterm election drubbing, and a difficult reelection campaign. The question was whether there’d be enough tangible improvement by Year Four for Obama to claim a second term – and we’re now less than two weeks from knowing the answer.
What’s striking is how different the next four years look from the current vantage point. Most Americans aren’t yet feeling it, but this fall has brought some of the most encouraging economic news of Obama’s presidency. Housing starts are up, the unemployment rate has finally fallen under 8 percent (and back to where it was when he took office), and weekly jobless claims are down. We don’t seem to be on the verge of a sudden, explosive burst of growth, but the economy is finally emerging from the Great Recession and steady, significant improvement seems likely over the next few years.
The political implications of this are … complicated. In the immediate term, the economy is still working against Obama. The post-meltdown years have been long and painful for most voters, and there have been false starts before, so the recent uptick in good news doesn’t seem to be resonating much with them. Polls show an increasing number of voters believe the country is better off now than when Obama became president and there’s still a widespread recognition that much of the current suffering is the product of George W. Bush’s presidency. But it seems as if they also believe the recovery should be much stronger.
As a result, Obama’s standing on the economy has actually worsened over the last month. Back in September, when he had a solid lead over Romney and Republicans were beginning to give up, the president had moved into a tie in most polls on the question of who would better handle the economy. But since the first debate in Denver, Romney has reclaimed the lead on that subject; it’s up to 9 points in the most recent ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll.
This explains the shift in the race that played out after Denver. A few days after the debate, Romney began taking the lead in polling averages for the first time all year, and he’s held that position since. A strong performance in the second debate by Obama failed to reverse Romney’s gains – probably because even though voters judged Obama the overall winner of the showdown, they believed by a wide margin that Romney had won it on the economy. The Romney campaign’s central calculation has always been that economically frustrated swing voters would ultimately decide to turn on Obama and embrace Romney as a protest vehicle, and that strategy may well be validated.
The irony, of course, is that if the election were six months or a year from now, Obama would probably be in much better shape, the way the economy is going. Which points to an odd reality about this election: The basic ingredients for the winner’s legacy may already be in place.
Look at it this way. If Obama is reelected and his second term is defined by stronger growth, a dwindling unemployment rate, and an accompanying surge in revenue that helps arrest the deficit, then his approval rating should tick up considerably, as Bill Clinton’s did in his second term. It’s not hard to imagine a reelected Obama enjoying a steady run of, say, 60 percent approval and leaving office with a broad consensus that his presidency had been successful.
This would shape Obama’s long-term legacy, obviously, and it would also have major implications for 2016. If Obama is popular and the economy is strong, the idea of continuity will be compelling, both in the Democratic primaries and the general election. This would be the ideal scenario for Hillary Clinton, who could combine her own giant base with an Obama army that has fallen back in love with the Clintons since 2008. Potentially, she’d be able to intimidate most other Democrats out of the race, the way Al Gore did in 2000, and enter the fall campaign as the clear favorite.
Now consider another scenario: Romney wins on Nov. 6. Under this scenario, Obama’s historical legacy becomes more complicated. Yes, he presided over the most productive two-year period of legislative activity since the Great Society, but his signature achievement – healthcare reform – will be imperiled and he might not get much retroactive credit for any big economic leaps that were set in motion on his watch. And it’s not like history tends to be kind to one-termers.
At the same time, Romney will come to office with the economy improving, and with a lot of upside potential. If the tentative recovery of the last few years accelerates on his watch, it will become the Romney Recovery, and his approval rating will reflect it, even if it’s not the result of his policies. And if Romney is popular heading into 2016, he’ll be well-positioned to win a second-term, a feat that by itself will boost his place in history. It could also scare off would-be Democratic challengers like Clinton, who might see futility in running against a president widely viewed as a success.
None of this is guaranteed to happen, of course. Maybe the economy won’t actually improve that much in the next four years, or maybe it will suddenly grind to a halt just as the ’16 election approaches. And you never know what will happen internationally. But the difference from four years ago is striking. Back then, it was obvious that the economy would cause serious political trauma for the next president. But in this election, it feels like the economy will be the winner’s friend.