The 2012 election is well underway. And our national press is treating it as even more of a celebrity "reality show" than ever. How far through the looking glass are we when we all know that "reality show" means a completely staged game show (Survivor) or a celebration of celebrity for the sake of celebrity (Keeping Up with the Kardashians)?
Focused on the horse race and the celebrity fest, our Pod Pundits are speculating happily about the Republican primary contest. With no horse race on the Democratic side - unfortunately! - the focus of the coverage right now is on the squabbling among the Republicans, an unattractive scene to most viewers.
But the front-loading of the primary season means that in a couple of months, the Republicans are likely to have a presumptive nominee. Then there will be nine months of focus on the horse race between the Republican nominee and Obama for the general election, with the celebrity spectacles of the Party conventions in the summer as half-time show entertainment.
Despite Obama's relatively strong showing in the polls right now for the general, it's going to be difficult for him to get re-elected. Unemployment is high and there are no visible signs for most people that conditions are likely to improve substantially. Europe is sliding into a recession, and even China is showing signs of being on the verge of a housing bubble that is about to pop. A new recession (the "double-dip") is possible in the US, especially if the euro crisis hammers the US financial system, which is very likely. The biggest private casualty of the euro crisis to date has been Jon Corzine's MF Global, a US-based company.
In the real world, it's hardly possible to fully separate policies from style in Presidential campaigns. But if we talk about it in terms of style, Obama's rhetorical gifts aren't as potent as they were in 2008, because the political context is different. Then, soaring but vague speeches about hope, combined with concrete proposals, some of which proved more durable than others, were confronting an unpleasant old man (John McCain) defending a Republican Administration that had become politically toxic.
Conventional horse race calculations would say that the incumbent President needs to make his opponent the issue. But the incumbent also has to defend his record, with which the public generally is not so impressed. And Obama has seriously impaired the effectiveness of his own rhetoric by his repeated cave-ins to Republican political bullying and blackmail, most notoriously over the debt-ceiling limit this past year. That seems to have been a jump-the-shark moment for his credibility as a negotiator with the Republicans, a no-turning-back moment in the sense that it will be hard for anyone to have high confidence that he will be willing to go to the wall for things his says he will fight hardest to achieve.
He's also spent three years now building a narrative in support of conservative economics - yes, conservative economics, not matter how hysterically the Republicans may characterize his austerity policies. In this case, his rhetoric about the government needing to tighten its belt just like families sitting around the proverbial kitchen table really seems to reflect his policy preferences. But it makes it far more difficult for him to draw a favorable contrast between his economic policies and those of the Republicans.
Two of his best issues could have been and should have been Social Security and Medicare, where he could have posed as defending them against the Republicans. But after he and his deficit commission chairmen and Democratic negotiators in Congress have repeatedly offered up serious cuts in benefits in both programs, it's hard to see how he can draw a strong contrast. Worse, the Republicans will use his proposals to cut Social Security and Medicare against him, even though their approach would be far more drastic.
And Obama's increasingly bizarre commitment to bipartisanship as some kind of governing principle in the face of an authoritarian, uncompromising Republican Party blunts his message. His Osawatomie speech earlier this month showed Obama at his partisan best. But in middle of making an eloquent case for progressive values (that he apparently doesn't actually share), he pepper-sprayed his own more confrontational rhetoric with bipartisan nonsense.
This isn't at all new for him. One of his best moments as President came when he denounced the highly partisan Supreme Court ruling in Citizen's United two years ago. (President Obama Vows to Continue Standing Up to the Special Interests on Behalf of the American People 01/23/2011) "This ruling strikes at our democracy itself," the President said. Not loony as Newt Gingrich's recent segregationist talk about ignoring court rulings Republicans don't like and arresting judges that irritate them. But that was a strong, even historic statement by an American President saying that a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court was a threat to democracy itself, putting it in the league with Dred Scott decision and the infamous, partisan anti-New Deal rulings by the Nine Old Men (as FDR polemically referred to the hostile Supreme Court).
Yet even there, he tossed out bipartisan references and declared this as his plan of action: "I instructed my administration to get to work immediately with Members of Congress willing to fight for the American people to develop a forceful, bipartisan response to this decision. We have begun that work, and it will be a priority for us until we repair the damage that has been done."
You can't build public support for dealing with a problem of crass, narrow partisanship and outright corruption on the High Court by pretending that everyone is on the same side. Although I was glad at the time to see Obama saying "it will be a priority for us until we repair the damage that has been done." If the President is attacking the Supreme Court for threatening "our democracy itself" with a bad ruling - and he was, rightly so - it's essentially a solemn obligation for him to make it "a priority for us until we repair the damage that has been done."
Can you remember the last time you heard the President mention Citizen's United?
No wonder the Republicans call him President Pushover when they're not on TV calling him a Marxist Kenyan anti-colonialist Islamunist who hates America.
Obama has gambled his re-election on two major assumptions: that bailing out the giant banks would be the main thing that would be needed to get the economy back on track and make 2012 Morning In America II; and, that independent voters were more interested in seeing bipartisan process tilted heavily toward Republicans' favored positions than they are in seeing progress on substantive issues.
Incumbency has great advantages in terms of setting the agenda, familiarity with the candidate and the ability to attract large amounts of campaign money. It's not easy to unseat a sitting President. And as unappealing as Obama's Herbert Hoover economic policies are, most people who pay close attention to the Republican candidate's policy proposals will find them worse, if not downright terrifying.
Still, Obama's is looking at a re-election fight in a depressed economy, possibly with unemployment on the rise and a year of bad economic news; his credibility has been seriously compromised, especially by the debt-ceiling fiasco; and, his ability to draw favorable contrasts to the Republican candidate is mitigated in a major way by his own conservative economic-policy inclinations and his almost-obsessive pitches to a bipartisanship that doesn't much interest even most independent voters.