On Sunday, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial from Steve Chapman suggesting that President Barack Obama should drop out of the 2012 race. Chapman has a resume that includes work for both The American Spectator and National Review, but he’s on the editorial board of Obama’s hometown newspaper, so this is a significant waypoint on the President’s journey into history.
After listing Obama’s woes – from economic malaise to awful approval ratings – Chapman suggests that stepping aside might be the “sensible” thing to do:
It’s hard for a president to win a second term when unemployment is painfully high. If the economy were in full rebound mode, Obama might win anyway. But it isn’t, and it may fall into a second recession — in which case voters will decide his middle name is Hoover, not Hussein. Why not leave of his own volition instead of waiting to get the ax?
Chapman goes on to note that presidential second terms are usually lackluster, and Obama would very likely find himself facing a Congress under full Republican control. I wonder if the looming specter of big House and Senate losses might combine with Obama’s low approval, and the echoes of the New York special election disaster, to create a vortex of Democrat disillusionment: they’ll blame Obama for their congressional doldrums, while panicked House and Senate Democrats “distance” themselves from the President to the point where they’re practically running against him… which will only cause his negative coat-tails to grow longer. The relationship between unpopular Presidents and vulnerable congressional representatives during big elections can be very delicate.
In the course of proposing a scenario for Obama to step aside, Chapman uncovers the reason Obama will strongly resist such proposals, and senior Democrats will be reluctant to make them:
The ideal candidate would be a figure of stature and ability who can’t be blamed for the economy. That person should not be a member of Congress, since it has an even lower approval rating than the president’s.
It would also help to be conspicuously associated with prosperity. Given Obama’s reputation for being too quick to compromise, a reputation for toughness would be an asset.
As it happens, there is someone at hand who fits this description: Hillary Clinton. Her husband presided over a boom, she’s been busy deposing dictators instead of destroying jobs, and she’s never been accused of being a pushover.
Not only that, Clinton is a savvy political veteran who already knows how to run for president. Oh, and a new Bloomberg poll finds her to be merely “the most popular national political figure in America today.”
If he runs for re-election, Obama may find that the only fate worse than losing is winning. But he might arrange things so it will be Clinton who has the unenviable job of reviving the economy, balancing the budget, getting out of Afghanistan and grappling with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Obama, meanwhile, will be on a Hawaiian beach, wrestling the cap off a Corona.
Win or lose, Obama’s 2012 campaign will be about shaping history. The lesson politicians draw from the Nixon and Clinton impeachment dramas is that if an embattled President hangs in there, he retains his influence on history.
When Nixon left office, he forfeited that influence, and allowed himself to be dismissed forever as the Watergate guy. Very little else about his presidency is ever discussed. (Which is not meant as a blanket defense of Nixon’s record, which offers many points beyond Watergate deserving of robust criticism.) Nixon’s tombstone was being chiseled before his final presidential helicopter ride was over.
Clinton, on the other hand, fought a bitter scorched-earth battle against impeachment. He did enormous damage to the American political system – if he was a Republican, the media would still be running stories about how “divisive” his struggle to say in office was, and citing the perjury-is-no-crime defense as a stunning affront to the due process of law. However, by remaining in office, he retained control over his legacy. He gets more than one paragraph in the book of presidential history.
Obama will view the suggestion to step aside in 2012 the same way. He’s not going to hand over the race to Hillary Clinton, and make himself look like a bizarre detour from the Clintons’ domination of Democrat politics. If he doesn’t run in 2012, he’s accepting the storyline of an incompetent failure driven from politics by a horrible economy – an epitaph no amount of “always said I was willing to be a one-term president” spin is going to erase.
His personal ego will play a role in refusing to bow out of the race, but the President also be listening to political sages who tell him that he can’t afford to discard his last chance at shaping history. Even a losing campaign gives him that chance.
Nothing about Obama’s current emphasis on re-election suggests he’s even momentarily entertaining a quiet exit from the 2012 stage. He’s still making proposals, from Stimulus II to his latest demand for tax increases, that he knows are doomed to failure, entirely because his sole priorities are raising funds and setting up sound bites for next year. If anything, his press conference this morning demonstrated his bitter, almost furious insistence on doubling down on his re-election bid. He’s not going anywhere until he loses an election. Democrats who think he cares how much damage he does to the Party on the way out are deluding themselves.