With the Republican primaries over and the conventions months away, we have entered into the big lull of the presidential race. With the drawdown in activity, I have been in more of a reflective mood, and as is my wont, have been thinking about possible historical precedents for this year's contest. Both 1980 and 1996 spring immediately to mind, since these were the last two times that an incumbent Democrat faced reelection. A repeat of 1980 would be a disaster for Obama, a copy of 1996 is the best case scenario.
There are plenty of similarities between the current situation and the two past elections I've mentioned. In each case the Democrat in question came to power on a wave of hope and high expectations after a Republican administration. Also, Carter (in 1980), Clinton (in 1996) and Obama (in 2012) came into the presidency with limited experience in Washington. (At two years, Obama had more than the others, who had been governors.) Each of these candidate also faced rocky first terms and a very divisive climate on Capitol Hill. Carter governed in the midst of massive inflation, high unemployment, an oil shortage, the reheating of the Cold War, and the hostage crisis in Iran. All of these things coincided with the coalescence of the New Right and its effective combination of monied business interests, neocon Cold Warriors, and evangelical Christians. In 1994, two years after Clinton was elected, Republicans controlled the House and Senate for the first time since the 1950s after blowing Democrats out of the water at the polls. Clinton had to deal with House Speaker Newt Gingrich shutting down the government, a trumped-up Whitewater "scandal," and constant harassment from newly resurgent right wing radio. President Obama, as we well know, has to contend with a sluggish economy, a patently obstructionist opposition party, scary levels of racial resentment, and a propaganda machine masquerading as a news network.
Clinton had one ace in the hole that Obama lacks: a healthy economy. The current levels of unemployment do not bode well for an incumbent president, and there's a good chance that troubles in Europe could send the American economy back into recession. If that happens, I really doubt that the president can win. He also must deal with the capricious whims of a partisan Supreme Court which could very well destroy his signature legislative achievement during the heat of the general election. Even as an incumbent Obama will be forced to fight this election uphill, because the aforementioned Supreme Court's decision have allowed his opponents in the corporate plutocracy to spend their millions at whim.
However, Obama is most decidedly not a Jimmy Carter. Carter's leadership style made him seem amateurish at times, and his strict moralism often got in the way of practical action; whereas Obama exudes pragmatism, confidence and competence. In terms of foreign military interventions, Carter will be remembered for the botched Desert One rescue mission in Iran, Obama for Seal Team Six. (However, the volatile situation in Afghanistan still holds plenty of potential pitfalls.) Unlike Carter, Obama has not had to face challengers from his own party in the primaries, as Carter did with Ted Kennedy in 1980. The Democrats look pretty well united right now, they just need to be able to get their base out to vote.
Obama's unflappability and no-drama style are quite different from Clinton's personal failings and his lack of discipline. That being said, Obama possesses an asset that served Clinton well: likability. As the president's appearance on late night TV reasserted, the man has a winning charisma and sense of humor. His opponent, Mitt Romney, possesses neither. We might remember Bob Dole today for his wit and self-effacing style, but he only developed these after quitting politics. When he ran in 1996, he appeared charmless and mean-spirited. Just as Dole fit the stereotype of the calculating old Washington hand, Romney is easy to pigeonhole as an out of touch technocrat without firm beliefs or common touch, mostly since he keeps opening his clueless mouth.
All of that being the case, I still fear that this election will be more 1980 than 1996. The economy is too much of a wild card, the vehemence of Obama's opposition (and ability to mobilize its base) is too fearsome, and the media climate is such that a bunch of nameless plutocrats can use their lucre to fund Super PACS to spread all manner of scurrilous lies. I can only hope that it is the more recent historical scenario that repeats itself.