Conventional wisdom predicts that the 2012 presidential election will be primarily about jobs and economic growth, and that doesn't bode well for the incumbent at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It's been more than 70 years since we re-elected an incumbent president with unemployment above 8 percent. Even though the official jobless rate under Ronald Reagan went higher than we have seen under Barack Obama (10.8 percent in November and December 1982), it dropped below 9 percent 13 months before the 1984 election, and descended to 7.2 percent in June 1984, with the economy gaining a stunning 6.55 million jobs in just 19 months, averaging a gain of 345,210 jobs per month during that period.
No one expects that kind of job growth in this cycle. It's highly unlikely that the economy will move from a liability to an asset for President Obama or the Democrats. If conventional wisdom and electoral history hold, Obama will be a one-term president. But what if he could turn voters' attention away from the sputtering economy and make 2012 into an election based on a perceived strength in foreign policy and his performance as a war president?
If conventional wisdom and electoral history hold, Obama will be a one-term president.
Undoubtedly, Obama's team will want to highlight non-economic issues, especially those that potentially provide contrast with Republican hopefuls. This will be especially true for the current crop of GOP frontrunners, two of whom have extensive private-sector records of financial success (Mitt Romney and Herman Cain), and the other with a public-sector record of managing a job-creating environment (Rick Perry). The obvious choice for differentiation will be foreign policy, especially Obama's record on military action.
That does have some potential for Obama. The president has racked up some impressive scores on the battlefield in the war on terror, including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki. The stepped-up drone strikes in Pakistan has crippled the leadership of al Qaeda, and Obama's order to kill pirates holding Americans hostage gave an early indication that this president would not shrink from wielding American power — at least on some occasions. He also clearly wanted to claim some credit for the death of Moammar Gadhafi, which was enabled by Western military strikes, if not directly creditable to them.
It doesn't hurt that Obama's potential rivals also seem to be talking about everything but the economy. The big takeaway topics from recent Republican presidential debates have ranged from HPV vaccinations to hostage negotiation with terrorists, and from the finer points of book publishing and between-edition edits to the ins and outs of subcontracted lawn care. Only when Herman Cain hit a big polling updraft did the Republican presidential candidates get around to seriously discussing economic policy during the debates, even if all they did initially was attack Cain's plan.
However, Obama will have some problems in using foreign policy to distract from America's economic woes. First, while Obama gets credit for taking out bin Laden, voters expected an American president to take that shot if the opportunity presented itself. Obama got a momentary boost in polling from the success of the mission, but the short duration of that bump tells the story of how successful an "I Got Bin Laden" campaign strategy will be in 2012. That will also be true of the withdrawal from Iraq, which took place on George W. Bush's timetable rather than Obama's. The killing of Awlaki proved a lot more politically difficult, as civil libertarians on both sides of the partisan divide questioned whether Obama had overstepped the law in targeting an American citizen for a military strike, even though most Americans seemed to have no trouble with the decision.
The case of Gadhafi is even murkier. While no one will miss the brutal tyrant, we may not like what follows next, either. Already the new regime in Tripoli has announced the imposition of certain elements of Sharia law ahead of any democratic reforms, and the death of the dictator at the hands of the militia that captured him doesn't give a lot of confidence about the discipline of the new government's security apparatus. Thousands of shoulder-fired missiles have gone missing, and the U.S. says that terrorist groups are trying their best to get their hands on these weapons, mostly Soviet-era SA-7s that work well against civilian and military aircraft at lower altitudes. It won't take more than one or two successful shots at American aircraft by terrorists with these weapons to remind people how the missiles got out onto the open market in the first place.
A debate on foreign policy would also inevitably return focus to Obama's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, and that won't be a good topic for the incumbent. Obama's inept handling of the issue of building in Jerusalem in the early months of his presidency gave Mahmoud Abbas an excuse to bail out of direct negotiations, even though Abbas had never made the issue a deal-breaker before Obama's intervention. The president's demand for Israel to return to 1967 "borders" as a condition of negotiation — rather than a result of direct negotiation with the Palestinians — earned him a lecture from Benjamin Netanyahu and rebukes from Senate Democrats. Even Hamas rejected Obama's demand (although obviously for different reasons), making Obama look foolish and unschooled on the issues.
Lastly, though, the American voters won't allow Obama or his eventual Republican challenger to change the subject too often. While foreign policy and national security will surely be important topics in the 2012 election, they will not override the personal experience of so many Americans living through the worst economy in decades, especially with their homes devalued to the point of being albatrosses rather than assets, and little hope in sight for significant growth. Voters demanded change based on economic and fiscal policy in both 2008 and 2010, and it's a safe bet that 2012 will be fought on the exact same lines.