Thursday, September 8, 2011

Four more years? Not exactly -- Sept. 8, 2011 column


There’s no way around it. The chants of “Four more years! Four more years!” at President Barack Obama’s Labor Day rally in Detroit were unsettling.

Obama grinned as the cheers erupted, but he’d have to be delusional to think people really want to stay on the current path for four, or any, more years. And that presents a challenge for his re-election. A president always runs on his record, and his report card shows he needs improvement.

“Four more years!” also inevitably evokes a period in American history most Democrats, indeed most Americans, would rather forget. It was Richard Nixon’s rallying cry in his 1972 re-election campaign. After his landslide victory, he was gone in less than two years, swept out with the Watergate scandal.

And in case anyone is wondering, this also is no time for “Obama’s the one!” or for substituting jobs for peace in Henry Kissinger’s famous 1972 slogan, “peace is at hand.” The columnist Russell Baker observed wryly in the New York Times in June 1973 that “peace is at hand” meant, “as events demonstrated, `We will still be bombing them in the summer of ’73.’”

“Jobs now,” though, could work -- real jobs, that is, not just as a slogan.
Historians tell us no president since FDR has been re-elected with unemployment above 8 percent. Unemployment was 7.8 percent when Obama took office and held steady at 9.1 percent in August with 14 million Americans officially out of work.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicts joblessness will remain above 8 percent until 2014. While there’s no science about 8 percent, Obama needs to be able to show improvement by Election Day.

Before his economic speech Thursday to a joint session of Congress, Obama’s job approval had sunk to the lowest levels of his presidency. Only about 40 percent of people approve of the way he’s handling his job. People are even more disgusted with Congress.

Obama’s decline has precipitated a wave of voters’ remorse and second-guessing. Hillary Clinton warned us, commentators say, as they dream of what might have been had she won.

I went back to re-read some of Clinton’s campaign criticisms of Obama, and they were eerily fresh and on point.

“It’s time we moved from good words to good works, from sound bites to sound solutions,” she declared in February 2008. People “need a president ready to manage our economy,” who’s “ready on Day One,” who won’t need “on-the-job training.”

Ah, but Clinton’s cogent arguments couldn’t hold a candle to Obama’s word castles.

Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University and “messaging consultant” to Democrats, wrote in the Times magazine last month:

“Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted ‘present’ (instead of ‘yea’ or ‘nay’) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.”

Voters hoped that Obama would use his gift for words to turn the country around.That may have been naïve. In any case, the country’s mood is bleaker than ever.

Still, Obama isn’t Jimmy Carter, whose job approval rating in September of his third year plummeted to 32 percent. And, anything can happen in the next 14 months. For one thing, congressional Republicans are making noises of cooperation. Then, too, the GOP could put up an extremist who is unacceptable to the independent voters who decide elections. Obama could yet be Bill Clinton who recovered handily from a job approval rating of 46 percent in September of his third year.

One could argue that nothing can prepare anyone for the challenges of the Oval Office. The president with extensive domestic experience gets hit with global crises, while the internationalist finds the country beset by domestic problems and natural disasters.

So, let’s stipulate that Hillary was right, and Obama arrived woefully unprepared. But she’s not running this time, and he’s neither delusional nor dumb.

After four years of trial by fire, he will know what he didn’t know then. Obama may be able to argue that it’s the Republican who will need on-the-job training, while the sitting president is ready for the next four years.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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