BLANKLEY: Obama’s incumbent advantage

Power to dominate is real, but can disappear overnight

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The media tend to be filled with many items that are either untrue or obvious. Last week - from Politico to cable television, from Karl Rove to Mike Huckabee - was a moment for the obvious to be stated and restated: “The GOP should not underestimate how hard it will be to defeat President Obama next November; indeed, he has to be considered the favorite to win the next presidential election.” True.

Of course, the same thing could have been (and was) said about President Lyndon B. Johnson in the spring of 1967 and about President Jimmy Carter in the spring of 1979. Every incumbent president is the most formidable political force in the country. Even a deeply wounded president must be seen as formidable - as Thomas Dewey learned to his regret in 1948, when President Harry S. Truman won the election even though the Democratic Party had been split three ways: The pacifist left and the segregationist faction split off and ran their own candidates - Henry Wallace on the Progressive ticket, Strom Thurmond on the Dixiecrat ticket.

In 1967-68, no prominent Democratic candidate - including Sen. Robert F. Kennedy - was prepared to take on Johnson, politically wounded by the Vietnam War, until the unlikely Eugene McCarthy got 42 percent in the New Hampshire primary. Kennedy then got in, and LBJ announced he would not run for re-election.

And in 1980, Ronald Reagan was actually running 8 points down in the Gallup Poll in October 1980, only weeks before the election he eventually won by getting 10 percent more of the popular vote than incumbent Jimmy Carter.

It is also a truism of American politics for the “out” party’s primary contenders to be seen as not presidential. They are often disparaged as “the seven dwarfs” or lacking presidential stature or too right-wing or unknown. And last week was also the moment for prominent and respected Republicans, including columnist George Will and former Gov. John Sununu, to pronounce various of the likely Republican contenders unfit for nomination or election to the presidency. But then, Richard Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were all written off as either unelectable or unfit by various prominent members of their respective parties. They all ended up being respectfully called “Mr. President,” often by the very people who disparaged their chances a year before.

So, yes, of course, Republicans should not take lightly the challenge of defeating Mr. Obama. On the other hand, rarely has an incumbent president presided over a more dangerous world with a foreign policy so manifestly adrift.

Nor, since FDR, has an incumbent president been re-elected with the electorate feeling - and with good cause - so profoundly pessimistic about our nation’s current and future economic health. Annie Lowrey describes this in the liberal Slate digital magazine: “… 13.7 million Americans remain out of work. At the current rate, it will take more than a decade to get back to an unemployment rate of 5 percent. There are 6.6 million fewer Americans working today than there were three years ago. Blacks, whites, teenagers, the elderly, women, men, high-school dropouts, grad-school graduates - every demographic group has unemployment close to historical highs. About 6 million Americans form a new pool of the long-term unemployed, whose prospects in the labor market remain very dim. …

“The average duration of unemployment rose to a new high of 37.1 weeks. The labor-force participation rate is at a 25-year low. Unemployment has never been so high for so long, not since the Great Depression.” And that is after the good news on employment last week.

At least as threatening to the president’s re-election is the unfolding of foreign dangers. Governments often change their foreign policies, but rarely does a public have the chance to observe such change so openly as we are seeing currently with the White House’s Middle East “democracy” policy.

In his Cairo speech in 2009, the president seemed to be encouraging democracy. Then when Iranians protested a phony election, there was little support for them from the administration as they were being murdered in the street.

As Egyptians started protesting this year, the White House, endorsing “democracy,” was seen to quickly undercut 30-year ally Hosni Mubarak.

Over this weekend, the Assyrian International News Agency, according to the American Thinker, reported that several thousand Muslims have attacked Christian houses and places of worship in a town just 30 miles from Cairo. The fate of the clerics who worked at the churches is unknown. They may have been detained as hostages or burned to death in the fire. The violence was the result of a Christian dating a Muslim woman. I trust the mob that attacked the Christians was not part of the “democracy” crowd on whose behalf we undercut Mr. Mubarak.

Then when the egregious Col. Moammar Gadhafi started shooting and dive-bombing Libyan demonstrators, the White House was very late to call for his ouster. All this policy confusion was brutally reported in a much commented-on Wall Street Journal article last week, “U.S. Wavers on ‘Regime Change’ “: “After weeks of internal debate on how to respond to uprisings in the Arab world, the Obama administration is settling on a Middle East strategy: Help keep longtime allies who are willing to reform in power, even if that means the full democratic demands of their newly emboldened citizens might have to wait. … the U.S. is urging protesters from Bahrain to Morocco to work with existing rulers toward what some officials and diplomats are now calling ‘regime alteration,’ rather than regime change.”

None of this confusion will be electorally significant for Mr. Obama if the world does not experience badly damaging events between now and November 2012.

But, of course, at this point in Mr. Carter’s presidency (March 1979), the Soviet Union had not yet invaded Afghanistan and our diplomats had not yet been taken hostage in Iran. And despite a rough economy and sense of national malaise, Mr. Carter was odds-on favorite to be re-elected.

Tony Blankley is the author of “American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century” (Regnery, 2009) and vice president of the Edelman public relations firm in Washington.

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