The next presidential election is a year away—Nov. 6, 2012—making this an appropriate moment to take stock of President Obama's political prospects. And that's exactly what political scientist Bill Galston has done in a comprehensive and insightful analysis for the Brookings Institution, which he is about to publish. Galston, who was a White House domestic-policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, gave me a preview.
He says the election will hinge on three factors: the performance of the economy; the Republican Party's choice of a presidential nominee; and the campaign strategy that Obama and his chief political advisers David Axelrod and David Plouffe devise. It's only the latter category—the strategy—over which Obama has much control, Galston says. He adds that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the apparent GOP front-runner, would win if the election were held now, suggesting that Obama has a real fight on his hands. "It will be an uphill battle for the president but not 'Mission: Impossible,'" Galston adds.
Galston says Ohio should be the focal point of Democratic election strategy, since it is a microcosm of the United States and a key swing state that Obama won the last time. But the leaders of the Obama team, especially Axelrod, appear to believe that the template should be Colorado, which they consider a national trend-setter.
Obama's strategists seem to believe that his political coalition from 2008 can be re-created in Colorado, and across the nation, over the coming months.
But Galston argues that the 2008 coalition, based on hope and the promise of change, is badly frayed. African-Americans are still very strong for Obama, the first black president, with 95 percent supporting him, but Latinos, young people, women, and potential new voters are not nearly as enthusiastic about Obama as they were four years ago. "The idea that you're going to get that soufflé to rise twice is counterintuitive to me," Galston says.[Read: Never-Wrong Pundit Picks Obama to Win in 2012.]
Democratic strategists say that if the election becomes a referendum on Obama, he will probably lose. If it becomes a choice between Obama and his challenger, his re-election prospects would brighten.
One compelling line of argument, Galston notes, would be for Obama to say his policies, while not a panacea, have helped the United States avoid another Great Depression, and to urge voters to "look at what the other side would do under unified Republican control" of Congress and the White House. As a strategy, this seems very sensible. It would make for a rough-and-tumble 2012, but it could be an effective path for Obama back to the Oval Office.