Can Obama's likeability save him from defeat?

Peter Beinart seems to think so, but he’s taking the wrong lesson from 2004.  In a column today at The Daily Beast, Beinart recalls how he got the contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry wrong, and tries to extrapolate the lesson into 2012:


Back in 2004, I debated Jonah Goldberg about the presidential election. Bush will win, Jonah said, because after sniffing both of these guys for a while, Americans have simply decided they don’t like Kerry very much. Nonsense, I said. Likeability is in the eye of the beholder. Most Americans think the country is on the wrong track. Democrats have the demographic advantage. But I was too clever by half. Jonah was basically right.

Eight years later, something similar may be happening. Conventional wisdom suggests that an incumbent presiding over a people this unhappy should lose. According to a June poll by the Pew Research Center, only 11 percent of Americans think the economy is “excellent” or “good.” Only 28 percent (PDF) are “satisfied with the way things are going in the country.” Americans think (PDF) the country is on the “wrong track” by a margin of almost two to one.

And to a significant degree, they blame Barack Obama. A January Pew poll found that only 38 percent approve of the way he’s handling the economy. On the budget deficit, only 34 percent approve. On energy, it’s 36 percent. When asked in June which candidate is best capable of “improving economic conditions”—clearly the election’s dominant issue—Pew found that Mitt Romney bests Obama by eight points.

Yet despite all this, about as many Americans approve of the job Obama’s doing as disapprove. And he leads slightly in the polls. Which is to say, there’s a yawning gap between how Americans feel the country is doing and how they feel Obama is doing. There’s even a significant gap between the way they feel about Obama’s performance on key issues and the way they feel about his performance overall.

It’s an interesting argument — if all things were equal.  However, as much as Team Obama wants this to be a replay of 2004 (they’ve even drafted John Kerry into playing Romney for Obama’s debate prep), the political environment is much, much different.  Kerry only contended because of growing unhappiness with the war in Iraq.  Republicans countered with a base-turnout election strategy by fighting for social-conservative issues in down-ballot initiatives.  Both strategies worked because the economy was rapidly improving from what turned out to be a mild recession.

By this point in the summer of 2004, these were the economic indicators:

  • Unemployment rate: 5.6%
  • Civilian participation rate: 66.1%
  • Job additions in previous quarter: 640,000
  • GDP growth in previous two quarters: 2.6%, 2.7%
  • ISM index (manufacturing):60.5

Now, let’s look at those same indicators eight years later:

  • Unemployment rate: 8.2%
  • Civilian participation rate: 63.8%
  • Job additions in previous quarter: 225,000
  • GDP growth in previous two quarters: 1.9%, 3.0%
  • ISM index (manufacturing): 49.7

Back then, Kerry campaigned on the so-called “jobless recovery,” but that’s actually taking place now.  The economy didn’t have the central and overwhelming focus for voters in 2004 as it does now.  Soft measures such as “likeability” aren’t going to move the needle significantly — and if they did, Obama wouldn’t be finding himself below 50% in every poll, in virtual or actual ties with his less-well-known Republican challenger.

Obama certainly hopes that he can win an election on that basis.  It’s one of the reasons why his campaign has gotten so desperate to paint Romney as an unfeeling corporate raider that they’ve explicitly accused him of being an uncharged felon this week.  That, however, won’t distract voters from the failures of Obamanomics — and it might even erode those likeability numbers that Beinart and other Democrats hope will rescue them from an ignominious defeat in November.


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