I’m not talking about resignation, or just refusing to offer any proposals until after the next election. What if Obama simply decided not to run for a second term as President?
The thought occurred to me after reading Peggy Noonan’s piece this week for the Wall Street Journal, which argues that Obama has already quit in a practical sense:
The phrase of the day is “new lows.” It blares from every screen. The number of Americans satisfied with the ways things are going hits new lows—11%. President Obama’s popularity: new lows. The Dow Jones Industrial Average this year: new lows. Maybe it will enter ordinary language. “Charlie, it’s been ages. How are you, how’s Betty?” “I’m experiencing some volatility, but she’s inching toward new lows.”
The market is dispirited. I’m wondering if the president is, too, and if that won’t carry implications for the 2012 race. You can imagine him having lunch with political advisers, hearing some unwanted advice—”Don’t go to Martha’s Vineyard!”—putting his napkin by his plate, pushing back from the table, rising, and saying in a clipped, well-modulated voice: “I’m tired. I’m going. If they want this job so much let them have it.” …
The president shows all the signs of becoming a man who, around the time he unveils his new jobs proposal in September, is going to start musing in interviews about whether anyone can be a successful president now, what with the complexity of the problems and the forces immediately arrayed, in a politically polarized age, against any specific action. That was probably his inner rationale for not coming up with a specific debt-ceiling plan: Why give the inevitable forces a target? But his refusal to produce a plan became itself the target. Reverse Midas.
Under these circumstances he could not possibly be enjoying his job. On the stump this week in the Midwest, he should have been on fire with the joy of combat, he should have had them whooping and hollering with fresh material and funny lines. But even at his feistiest, he was wilted. Distracted. Sometimes he seems to be observing himself and his interactions as opposed to being himself and having interactions. His audiences wanted to show support, it was clear, that’s why they came. But there was something tentative in their response, as if they wanted to come through for the applause line but couldn’t figure out exactly where the applause line was. The president was dropping his g’s, always a terrible sign, a kind of bowing that assumes he speaks from a great height. He also started saying “folks” again. That too is a tell. It’s the word politicians who think they’re better and brighter than normal people use when they’re trying to make normal people think they’re normal.
Nothing says that Obama has to run for a second term in office. We have had Presidents walk away from opportunities to run for re-election. Prior to FDR, that would include every President who didn’t run for a third term, of course, but there are examples in the post-22nd Amendment era, too. Harry Truman was specifically exempted from the term limits imposed by the constitutional amendment but chose not to run for a second full term in 1952. Lyndon Johnson also chose not to run for his second full term in 1968. Both men made those choices at least in large part because they had become so unpopular that they clearly couldn’t win, especially LBJ. Another parallel to LBJ is the effect of having an unpopular war tied around a president’s neck.
Some will scoff at the notion that Obama and his large ego would walk away from the office, but LBJ was also rumored to think pretty highly of himself. It’s a low-probability outcome, but it isn’t a zero probability outcome. Obama’s ratings have tanked this year along with the economy, and he hasn’t come up with an original thought on economic policy since Porkulus. The leaks of his rumored plan sound a lot like Porkulus II, a sequel to a flop. This gives the impression that Obama has run out of ideas, and as Noonan argues in her piece, his attacks on Republicans for their supposed refusal to pass a plan he has yet to even submit to them sounds like a man who realizes that he’s out of ideas, too.
But the decision may end up being out of his hands if the political environment doesn’t improve. Obama’s numbers are plummeting in places Democrats can hardly afford to lose. In Pennsylvania, where Obama will top a ticket that also includes Bob Casey’s bid for a second Senate term, he’s either at 43% approval (Quinnipiac) or at 35% (Muhlenberg). Wisconsin turned Republican last year and a series of elections this year confirmed it, and Herb Kohl’s seat in the Senate is up for grabs. Obama can be expected to drag down the ticket in Virginia (James Webb’s seat is open), Florida (Bill Nelson), Ohio (Sherrod Brown), Maryland (Ben Cardin), and Michigan (Debbie Stabenow). Obama is underwater in New York and New Jersey already, two normally staunch Democratic states, both with Senate races on the line as well. If Obama runs at the top of those tickets, he might eke out victories in the two states, but his presence on the ticket will depress Democratic turnout and might endanger Kirsten Gillibrand and Robert Menendez; Democrats would almost certainly have to spend a ton of money to bolster them that they’d normally spend elsewhere.
Democrats will be looking at a massacre in the Senate, and that’s not even including already-endangered seats in Nebraska, Missouri, Montana, and New Mexico, which just elected its first Republican woman governor last year. Democrats could wind up losing enough seats to give Republicans a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate if Obama chases away the white working-class vote that he’s been alienating for the past two years on ObamaCare and now his disastrous economic performance. If unemployment starts rising and growth remains low in the next few months, Democrats may insist on Obama finding a graceful exit before the primaries.
And guess who that leaves with an open path to the Democratic nomination? Hillary Clinton. She can step into the void with promises to return America to the economic policies of her husband. The Left may not have much love for Hillary any longer, but she was winning the very working-class Democrats in the 2008 primaries that Obama is losing to the Republicans now. States like Pennsylvania and Michigan would snap back into place for Democrats, and perhaps Wisconsin as well. Having Obama off the top of the ticket would take some of the downward pressure off of some other Senate races, and Hillary would likely be a plus in most.
If Hillary took Obama’s place in 2012, Republicans would face a much tougher electoral map. They would still have the advantage of running against Obama’s record, but the GOP may not capture that disaffected Democratic working-class vote if Hillary also ran against Obamanomics and promised a return to Clintonian prosperity. The eventual Republican nominee would have at least a tougher task in winning those votes and the White House. And even if Hillary lost in a general election — Democrats lost the White House in 1952 and 1968, coincidentally both times with Richard Nixon on the Republican tickets — the Democrats might save a few Senate seats with an improved turnout in key states.
All of this is entirely speculative, of course, but it’s not impossible, either. Democrats might be loathe to push the nation’s first African-American President into an early retirement, but they may eventually balk at committing political suicide if Obama’s numbers and the economy keep going south in the next few months. Under those conditions, even Obama might be ready to walk away without much pushing.
Update (8/22): Be sure to read some of the thoughtful commentary at the Trackback links, but I’ll especially direct you to my friend Joe Gandelman, who has a personal reminiscence about LBJ’s withdrawal that’s worth reading.