Prediction: Next Obama Predictions
On October 17, I predicted that Obama would lose the presidential election. The basis of the prediction was that (1) his poor performance in the first debate seemed to trigger a surprisingly large flight to Romney, suggesting that his support was weak and (2) his weakness was particularly evident in the female vote. If Romney and the Republicans could appeal to women despite everything that had developed to that point, then Obama really seemed to have problems. I argued that Obama could have sealed that hole by making Hillary Clinton his vice-presidential candidate; but once again, he had opted for a cautious approach, in times that called for the energy and vision he promised in 2008.
I was wrong, of course. A very different reading is now possible. Obama did not lose. He won despite the caution that visibly disappointed many supporters and weakened public enthusiasm for his second term; he won despite a nasty labor market and other economic indicators that, in August, I said would surely hurt his campaign; he won against a challenger who had good credentials and, despite the inevitable missteps, did a fair job of patching together an impossibly fractured opposition. The election was not terribly close. It is not exactly that Obama won at his worst, against Romney at his best, but some parts of the process did have that look to them.
So what next? It appears that we are about to obtain the best available reconstruction of what Jimmy Carter might have achieved, if he’d had Barack Obama’s abilities and credentials, and if he had not been challenged by an excellent actor brandishing what was then a plausible Republicanism. That is, like Carter, Obama went into this election in a relatively weak position politically, conveying to many a sense of weak leadership; but unlike Carter, Obama survived, and then some.
A year ago September, I posed the possibility that, in the end, Obama might somehow turn out to reconstruct himself as a great president. That possibility seems a bit greater now: there is the bare possibility of greatness for any president who has been elected to a second term. The scenario I suggested — to which I gave 15% odds at that point — was that (1) the Republican party would continue to be a joke and (2) Obama, by contrast, would finally be taken seriously as “a president whose reasonableness and intelligence eventually heralds the emergence of a new, saner era in Washington politics.” An important contribution to the latter point would arise, I suggested, “if his wife or his future chief of staff or vice president finds a way to lead him into a more functional understanding of himself and his place in history.”
Translating this into somewhat more immediate terms, the question may be this: will Obama continue to behave in a weakly moderate fashion, erring on the safe side, advancing the ball down the field by inches at a time? Or, now that he is starting down the aisle toward the exit door and his legacy, will he become confident and determined enough to write in bold strokes? Reelection does give him a boost; the question is, how will he use it?
The ideal, I suggest, would be to do both: first, to proceed cautiously toward real achievements that will build his political capital, conceivably giving the Democrats control of both houses of Congress in 2014; and then to parlay that capital into success on one or more truly major achievements.
To illustrate the latter, at one point I wrote something about the possibility that he would endorse a constitutional convention. That would be a real toss of the dice, and Obama is not much of a gambler. My guess was that such a convention would be a victory for the left, overall, as Americans obtained a historic opportunity to think and speak broadly on the kind of government they wanted. The major parties would have little to gain from such a prospect, though, if it offered the possibility of repairing our corrupt two-party system. So I don’t expect Obama to pursue that particular bold option. But there are other possibilities.
Obama does seem, on balance, to develop and implement intelligent policies, and I think he has probably improved in his political abilities. I make that latter remark with particular hope that he has become less naive in his prior belief that Republican politicians will behave reasonably when given a chance. The politics of the right have not worked that way for a long time.
My first early speculation, then, is that the Democratic Party, like Obama, has lately passed its lowest point of weakness and ineffectuality vis-a-vis its more extreme Republican opponents. Starting with this election, I suggest, the nation has slowly begun to turn more decisively away from the nonsense and unreasonableness that many Republicans have stood for since the 1990s. The speculation is, for example, that the nation is beginning to lose interest in the anti-government gospel. People do want a government; the problem in their eyes is just that it needs to be effective.
That change won’t happen overnight. The first part of my speculation is that Obama will continue to implement intelligent policies, will do so in an increasingly effective manner, and will thus lay the groundwork for the nation to confirm, in the 2014 congressional elections, this speculated fatigue with the fringe right. (Not to suggest that the Tea Party hasn’t had good ideas. But the movement as a whole seems to have lost momentum.) The symbol of this shifting period will be a curve at its nadir: not falling much, not rising much, but beginning to show signs of a real change in direction.
The second part of the speculation is that Obama will use that opportunity for bold change, and will actually make bold changes. In other words, he has a possibility of making changes as historically significant as those of FDR in the 1930s and LBJ in the 1960s. I’ll guess that it’s 60-40 that he will do that if the Democrats gain control or near-control of both houses of Congress in 2014, and that there’s a 40% chance that will happen. So my present odds on Obama becoming a great president have risen to about 24% (i.e., 0.6 x 0.4).
One other speculation: I think Hillary Clinton’s time at the top will soon be over. (I will revise this guess if she reverses her claims that she is definitely going to step down in the near future.) There’s talk of her running for president in 2016. I don’t see it. If these things were equal, she would not be considered too old, but I think there will be that view of her. She has done a lot of good work as Secretary of State, but so have many others who never went on to become presidential candidates. If Obama does at least moderately well over the next four years, the center-left nostalgia for the capable Bill Clinton presidency will wane. Four years also provides a substantial opening for other contenders to surface. Without even having had a female vice president, a female president is going to be a hard sell for many — and Hillary, in particular, wasn’t even able to become vice president in 2008 or 2012. I wouldn’t rule out a run. She is a formidable politician, with a lot of experience, and less baggage than before. But I just don’t think her star will go any higher.
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