Barack Obama's prospects for re-election are, according to the odds makers, no better than 50-50. With persistent high unemployment, it is reasoned, the race for president will be tight regardless of who Republicans nominate. Indeed with the polls overwhelmingly showing that more than 70 percent think the country is "heading in the wrong direction," it is not hard to see why Obama is in trouble.
Yet Obama enjoys increasing advantages in that he is not challenged for re-nomination and the Republican race is beginning to resemble a football poll at mid-season. New number ones and surges, Bachmann, Cain, Romney and Gingrich have enjoyed a moment at the top. But Republican operatives argue, and not without reason, that when the race settles down, the GOP will vigorously support its nominee. But the relative peace on the Democrat side is a significant story that deserves attention.
Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter faced opposition for re-nomination. In LBJ's case, he quit his quest in March 1968, just as Harry Truman did after Estes Kefauver beat him in New Hampshire in 1952. Eugene McCarthy came close to Johnson in the Granite State and forced the Texan out of the race. Carter was challenged by Edward Kennedy and, although he handled "Teddy," he had to fight all the way to the convention. This took away resources and left the impression that Democrats were irreparably split.
However, Obama, like Bill Clinton, is able to repair strained relations with discontented Democrats. The press is giving him old-fashioned presidential treatment. During the visit to the Pacific Rim, Obama enjoyed a relaxed tour with good pictures and presidential moments. No gaffes and the luxury of not having to add Iowa to his schedule. Meanwhile, the fundraising machine is revved up in high gear, with no outlays to fend off dissident Democrats.
It has also allowed him to cherry pick taking advantage of the drift of events. Occupy Wall Street helped change the subject from deficit reduction to jobs, which was no small achievement. Labor won a big victory in Ohio and reproductive rights triumphed in Mississippi. Obama tilted his head to both groups without seeming to horn in on their triumphs. It was Obama at his best, cool, calm and always appropriate. This is what happens when you have a united party behind you. Trudging around New Hampshire sort of crimps a president's style, and Obama does not have to do that.
Obama can also develop new appeals for jobs, to equity and social justice. Even the court challenges to his health care package help to remind his core why they voted for him in 2008. Contrast this with LBJ's dilemma of campaigning without anti-war demonstrators, or Carter's efforts against Kennedy. As well, Carter wrestled with the Iran hostage crisis and LBJ had the Tet Offensive Obama is blithely pulling troops out of Iraq and will probably "wink, wink" be ordered out of Afghanistan by Hamid Karzai. He will probably leave cheerfully, no doubt pretending to mumble how Afghans should be grateful. Richard Nixon's withdrawals from South Vietnam were always accompanied by verbal gasconade, but the troops came home. By 1972, George McGovern was left with no issue at all.
Of course all this could change in an instant, but Obama is building a strong campaign less dependent on economic progress as previously believed. If by September 2012, he has a platform of peace and partial prosperity, Obama will be unbeatable. If he cruises, he has the patience of Democrats to thank. The non-challenge allowed the president to react only to a potential Republican threat. But unlike Carter, he helped the "base" and it is too early to tell whether he will compromise on core Democratic principles as Clinton did. With a war chest that does not have to be used against his political kinsmen, Obama has no more difficult decision in Asia than to stick to the script and decide whether he wants to wear a floral shirt.