by Lester Freamon
Some people think that the division of American political culture into Team Red vs. Team Blue is simplistic or unnecessarily antagonistic. I don’t. This kind of tribal motivation, specifically the cultural alienation with Team Red, is often the real cause of political or policy outcomes. It affects who we associate with, it affects what we’re willing to accept as evidence. So if we’re going to be interested in political or policy outcomes, that’s what we have to talk about. We might as well get it on the table.
In any case, there’s a little disconnect in some threads here and elsewhere regarding President Obama’s likelihood of reelection, and both parties seem to be quietly optimistic of their chances.
The Democrats have a few data points in their favor. They allege that the Republican field is weak, that head to head poll matchups show President substantially in front of every plausible Republican, that the Ryan plan is unpopular and will hurt the Republicans on Election Day. In fact Ralph Nader is so confident of the President’s reelection, he’s reprising his spoiler role.
On the other side, the Republicans claim that the President’s approval ratings are weak, that right track-wrong track numbers are weak, that the economy is bad and the President will be blamed for it. Just today, Quinnipiac published a poll showing the President 11 points in the hole in Pennsylvania. This is an ominous development for the President considering how important Pennsylvania will be to his reelection. And nationally, the story isn’t much better.
And as Jay Cost points out here, the is a substantial danger of a compounding effect. A President in the middle forties is a plausible candidate for reelection. A candidate in the high thirties isn’t. When and if Mr. Obama gets to the thirties, the people and groups outside his core base will not wish to see their political future bound to Mr. Obama’s.
For my part, I largely agree with both sides but I see the latter as much more fundamental. When push comes to shove I believe the American voters are not going to care about Donald Trump’s birther tangents or Newt Gingrich’s divorces. They are going to want real answers about jobs and growth and unless the Demo’s get a better message than what they’ve shown so far this movie will not end well for them.
Update May 2: I originally emailed this to Erik before Osama bin Laden was known to be dead. This news was not anticipated and obviously changes things to some extent. Some on the Left (and Right) conclude that the President will cruise to an easy reelection as a consequence, but I don’t. The fundamentals of the election are the same. Remember how three months ago Democrats thought they were going to win reelection on the strength of a Gabrielle Giffords backlash? Yeah, I forgot about that too, but trust me they did. What this does do is give the President a lift in the polls that will keep him from being written out of the equation for at least another couple of months.
But in an indirect way, this could change the election cycle in a profound way. Truth be told, at this point the death of bin Laden doesn’t affect the terrorist threat against the United States very much. But as a pretext to get out of Afghanistan, it can’t be beat. The war there is not terrifically popular among any significant group of Americans, and is substantially unpopular for the President’s base. And, if the President handles it correctly, he can address his worst weakness in a tangible way. Let’s recall, as things stand the Democrats are in the soup because the Republicans have proven that the Democrats are unwilling to cut any significant amount of government expenditures. But guess what, if the President ends the war in Afghanistan, this changes. Supposedly we are spending over $100 billion annually in Afghanistan. Now, the situation is complicated enough that we can’t recover all that money by ending the war in Afghanistan but we can recover a lot. In particular, we can save much more there than the President was willing to cut in other areas during recent budget negotiations. And if I were supporting the reelection of the President, that’s what I’d recommend he do (and for that matter I still recommend it even though I’m not).