The new political year promises to be momentous, filled with plenty of surprising, compelling twists and turns. This time next year, Barack Obama will either be preparing for his second term, or Mitt Romney will be planning his first. There, I've already made my first (pretty easy) prediction: Romney will win the Republican nomination. What else will happen? My picks are below. Make your own — and be sure and remind me in a year what a great (or lousy) job I did.
1. Republicans will take back the Senate
The math here is pretty easy. Currently, there are 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans and two independents who caucus with the Dems. That's a 53-47 advantage for Harry Reid and Co. Of the 33 seats up this year, 23 are Democratic. Several look like potential GOP pickoffs: Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Montana. And many open races, in which the incumbent is retiring, are also dangerous for Dems: North Dakota, New Mexico, Virginia, Wisconsin, Connecticut and Hawaii. Combine this with the retirement over the holidays of Ben Nelson, a Democrat from red-state Nebraska, and it's easy to see the GOP picking up the four or five seats it needs to win a majority. And remember, of the 10 Republican seats that are up this year, they may lose two (or less). What if there's a 50-50 tie in the Senate? This makes the winner of the presidency even more important, because the vice president casts the deciding vote in the Senate.
To be re-elected, President Obama will have to overcome hurdles higher than any postwar president has ever faced.
2. Republicans will keep the House
Democrats will gain, but the House will remain under Republican control. History shows that presidents running for re-election tend to boost their party's fortunes in the House by a dozen seats, but given the 2010 wave election that swelled the GOP majority to a 43-seat margin (241-198), that won't be enough. The real drama in the House will be whether Speaker John Boehner keeps his job. Majority Leader Eric Cantor reminds me of Brutus — a loyal subservient right up to the moment the blade plunges into Caesar's back. Et tu, Eric?
3. Obama will be re-elected — but just barely
To be re-elected, President Obama will have to overcome hurdles higher than any postwar president has ever faced. Unemployment is 8.6 percent and inflation (as measured by the consumer price index) is 3.4 percent. Add these numbers together and you get what's known as the "Misery Index" of 12.0 percent. The last time this figure was in double digits? 1992, when a 10.52 figure was enough for Bill Clinton to unseat a once-thought-to-be-unbeatable George H.W. Bush.
Obama's approval ratings hover in the mid-40s. This is lower than any modern incumbent president at this stage of his presidency, says Gallup poll data. At this point in their presidencies, Truman's approval was 54 percent, Eisenhower was 75 percent, LBJ 76 percent, Nixon 50 percent, Ford 43 percent, Carter 53 percent, Reagan 54 percent, Bush Sr. 51 percent, Clinton 51 percent, and Bush Jr. 58 percent. Obama is lower than the two presidents on this list who lost: Jimmy Carter and Bush Sr. That he is ahead of Ford (who lost to Carter) can give him little comfort.
But it's not all bad for the president. Other surveys show that most Americans continue to blame Obama's predecessor for America's economic ills. Most also blame congressional Republicans for the breakdown of our political system, including last summer's humiliating downgrade of long-term government debt by S&P.
The president will win the lion's share of votes from independents, Hispanics, women, young voters and Jews — all must-have constituencies that powered him to victory in 2008. But voter enthusiasm for Obama has waned to varying degrees among these groups; turnout will be lower in November than it was in '08. This may make a difference in key swing states like Florida (29 electoral votes), Ohio (18), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), Colorado (9) and New Mexico (5).
But there is a lack of enthusiasm among Republicans for Romney, too. He has yet to close the deal with conservatives, and this may suppress turnout for him as well. But the former governor, already focusing on November, is closer to the center than many in his party — and that is where elections tend to be won.
And if elections are won in the center, how close to it are Romney and Obama? Gallup says Americans rank themselves at 3.3 on a liberal-to-conservative scale of 1 to 5, and Gallup puts Romney at 3.5, and Obama at 2.3. Translation: Romney's views correlate very closely with most Americans, and Obama's do not. Gallup also found that the president's pro-equality views (reflected in the Occupy movement) don't resonate as strongly as Romney's pro-growth views.
Another data point not in the president's favor is the feeble rate at which the economy is expanding. Although GDP has grown each quarter since the recession officially ended in the summer of 2009, it has been anemic at best. No president since Eisenhower has ever won a second term when expansion was 2 percent or less, as it is now (1.8 percent in the third quarter of 2011). Lousy as that figure is, however, Obama can say it's a hell of a lot better than the -3.7 percent and -8.9 percent annualized rates in the two quarters before he was sworn in.
But as the old Sam Cooke song says, Americans don't know much about history. The dark days of 2008 — when, on George Bush's watch, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the big banks, and the automakers were all bailed out in the space of just four months — seem forgotten by many. And Obama made the dreadful mistake of promising too much, too soon. In a Feb. 2, 2009 interview on NBC's Today show, he uttered the one soundbite that will haunt him this year: "If I don't have this done in three years," the president told Matt Lauer, "then there's gonna be a one-term proposition."
What does "done in three years" mean? Obama didn't define it. But voters, in 10 month's time, will define it for him.
Bottom line: Barack Obama won 365 electoral votes in 2008, 95 more than he needed. He won't get anywhere near that many this year. Assuming that Romney wins the nomination, the race will be decided — for either man — by a razor-thin margin. Since I have to make a prediction here, I'll guess that Obama will hang on by his fingernails. But I have a tendency to be wrong.
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