This was Anthony Weiner’s week, although not in the way the perennially frenetic congressman had long coveted. But Weiner’s moment will pass, just as he soon will, even as the juvenilia of his tweeted private parts and pecs linger uncomfortably in memory and irrepressibly among the late night comics. This wasn’t tragedy, but farce: Not someone great brought down by a Shakespearean flaw, but an avatar of ambition and opportunism undone by cyberspace perversion. The cable celebrity became the internet incarnation of the dirty middle-aged man in a raincoat desperate to expose himself. Weiner apparently was determined to prove that nomenclature is destiny.
But long after the tabloids turn elsewhere, the puns have faded, and the next scandal has titillated and finished, what will endure after this remarkable week is the emergence of a consensus that Barack Obama could lose next year. Until now, and even among many Republicans who uttered it only behind closed doors, there was a sense that, amid a gradually strengthening if not yet popularly perceived recovery, against a weak Republican field most notable for those who opted not to run in 2012, the president was pretty much on course for re-election. Then, while Weiner was being forced from belligerent lying to Breitbarted confession, three other stories recast the prevailing outlook on the presidential campaign.
First, the unemployment numbers, both a survey of payrolls and the generally more accurate Labor Department count, reported a sharp decline in job creation during May — to barely a fifth of April’s total of 235,000 and a third of the generally accepted forecast. Joblessness rose by a tenth of a point, to 9.1 percent.
Second, The Times headlined an analysis, widely repeated, that no incumbent president since FDR has won a second term when unemployment was above 7.2 percent.
Third, just as Weiner was concluding his mea culpa, there was more bad news for the White House in the latest Washington Post/ABC poll. Nearly 60 percent of people offer a negative verdict on Obama’s stewardship of the economy. Then the clincher: While he defeats most Republicans by a margin of 10 to 17 points, the president is now tied with Mitt Romney among all Republicans, and still worse, three points behind among registered voters.
Even from NYU’s campus in Florence, Italy, I could feel the gears of political prognosis shifting back home.
Given Romney’s advantage, the GOP just might forgive his flip-flops and health-reforming transgressions and hold to its tradition of primogeniture, nominating the next person in line. Or, alternatively, the party might grumble but then gravitate to his cousin — in fact as well as in faith — former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who at least has his toe in the mainstream. Yes, he served Obama — or the country, as he prefers to put it — as ambassador to China. But he is "finally a serious candidate," writes former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson.
There you have it: Obama is vulnerable; the race is finally on and up for grabs unless the opposition follows a Gingrich or Bachmann off the cliff of certain defeat. Some of this is real. If the May job numbers are a trend and not, as the administration characterized them, "a bump in the road," the president will face a steep uphill struggle to Election Day. But much of the new mood is too instant, too superficial, and too casually ahistorical. The Times’ piece setting a 7.2 percent jobless bar for re-election is based on so small a number of cases that it's not political science but political soothsaying.
Until Ronald Reagan, who carried 49 states in 1984 when unemployment was 7.2 percent, you could have set the incumbent’s bar at 5.3 percent — the unemployment rate when Richard Nixon carried 49 states in 1972. Indeed, what people thought when they went to the polls for the Reagan landslide was that the unemployment rate was 7.3 percent, the last economic figure released before the election. Thus joblessness was almost exactly the same — only one tenth of a point lower — on Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" than it had been on his inaugural morning four years earlier. But in the recession that hit in the first half of his term, the rate spiked to 10.8 percent; what Americans believed and felt when they re-elected him was that the subsequent decline proved the economy was on a steady upward trajectory.
That’s what counts, not any absolute benchmark for jobs or growth. Conceivably, future handicappers may write that a president can't win again if unemployment is above, say, 8 or 8.5 percent — which is where it may be when and if Obama comes through in 2012. As The Times' Nate Silver wrote in gently questioning his own paper’s deterministic metric, there is a "maddeningly inexact relationship between unemployment and re-election."
The past doesn’t repeat itself, but to the extent that it hints at rather than reveals the future, the relevant signs suggest that Barack Obama is in a more advantageous position than Ronald Reagan was. In Gallup’s June 1983 numbers, Reagan’s approval was 43 percent; in late May and early June, Obama was five to eight points higher. And of the two presidents in the last four decades who had the highest approval ratings this far out from the election, the first Bush was trounced and the second Bush barely squeaked by. The presidents with middling ratings — Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton — ultimately triumphed; Dole was ahead of Clinton in June of 1995.
Such history doesn’t mandate an Obama victory. But there are other signs which suggest his comparative strength. In the Gallup numbers, Reagan was losing to both Walter Mondale and John Glenn in the spring of 1983. Obama, in most polls, defeats every Republican, including Romney. A tie or narrow race in a survey like The Washington Post/ABC’s may signal not the start of a trend but this president’s staying power even in a period of bad news. Moreover, a variety of polls register Obama leads in critical swing states, including Ohio and, more surprisingly, North Carolina.
Now comes the hard passage — even harder than the great battles of the first two years. In the weeks and months ahead, all policy will be politics, too — and the question is not just whether and how fast the economy improves, but who prevails in the debates over budgets and deficits.
Here the president doesn’t hold all the high cards — arguably because he chose not to talk plainly to Americans about the role of public spending in an economic downturn. Presumably the calculation was that the first stimulus would be sufficient; no matter that it was reviled so long as it did the job. The deficit issue would then lose its political salience, as it did with Reagan in 1984. But the job now is incomplete, and the result is a widely held popular belief in flat earth economics — where the deficit is the cause of unemployment and cutting spending and demand will create jobs.
This anti-Keynesian doctrine is reinforced among elites by the rationalization that austerity, sharp and fast, will restore market confidence — and grateful corporations will then create more jobs. Leave aside the evident truth that companies hire and produce not in service of conservative ideology, but to service and sell to customers who are ready to buy and consume. That’s why investors, while they may not concede it, generally do better under a progressive approach that sustains and spurs demand. But beyond that, the anti-Keynesian delusion has been field-tested — during the Great Depression and now in Britain, where Conservative retrenchment has stalled recovery and flat-lined growth.
Such flat earth economics won’t hold with the public if Republicans hold to their present resolve and convert the attractive abstraction of spending cuts into the grim reality of shredding Medicare. There’s the leverage for the president if the GOP refuses to compromise on a reasonable basis — which is probably a remote possibility at best.
In any event, the increase in growth and jobs will be slower than it could be with a calibrated priority on combating the recession first, and then the deficit. But at minimum, Obama and the Democrats can’t afford to give in to fiscal mythology and lose the ground that has been gained. They also have to hope that in time the gains will be enough — that in fact, and not just spin, the May numbers were merely a bump in the road.
In the week Weiner was roasted, the conventional wisdom included that the 2012 election is not yet baked. But I suspect that by then the economy will finally be seen as moving in the right direction — or that sooner than that, Republican efforts to trash the recovery and repeal the New Deal will become all too transparent and repellant. Either outcome leads to Obama’s second term.