By Nicolas Bouchet

Like White House victims of midterm shellackings before him, President Barack Obama spent much of November seeking respite on the world stage, from Lisbon to Jakarta, from Seoul to Delhi. On each occasion he returned to a Washington basking in an Indian summer that contrasted with a distinctly frosty domestic political climate.

Having seen his democratic party suffer the worst midterm reversal since 1938, Obama finds himself confronted by gloomy economic and polling data, a gridlocked lame-duck Congress, and Republicans who are now the ones fired up and ready to go. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate rose to 9.8 percent in November. Soon after the congressional elections, pollster Rasmussen released the findings of a survey in which 47 percent of respondents agreed that America's 'best days are in the past'. Unsurprisingly, the website RealClearPolitics, which aggregates presidential approval polls, shows Obama's 'favourable' rating stuck in the mid-40s.

The 2012 presidential race kicked off on 3 November, even as votes were being recounted from Connecticut to Alaska. In the present atmosphere, one could be forgiven for thinking that the next two years will be little more than a countdown to a Republican return to the White House. The shelves of Washington's bookstores are filled with such best-sellers as Crimes Against Liberty: An Indictment of President Barack Obama, Trickle Up Poverty: Stopping Obama's Attack on Our Borders, Economy, and Security, and The Post American Presidency: The Obama Administration's War on America (or, from the left, for good measure, The Mendacity of Hope and the Betrayal of American Liberalism). Sarah Palin rules the airwaves, reportedly earning one million dollars for the eight-episode 'Sarah Palin's Alaska' reality-TV series. With one eye on a potential White House run in 2012, she is so far playing a clever game of 'will she, won't she', which this media natural will keep going as long as she can, ensuring more attention and lucrative speaking engagements without actually having to commit to some of the rigours that a presidential campaign entails.

Perhaps we should not read too much into all this frenzy; Bill Clinton was the target of countless hyperbolic attacks, suffered a disastrous midterm defeat, and yet sailed to re-election two years later. To put the sound and fury on Fox News and MSNBC in a broader context, the current political climate would be perfectly familiar to the late Richard Hofstadter whose classic 1964 essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, began with the premise that 'American politics has often been an arena for angry minds' and traced the historical recurrence of 'the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy' in the body politic of the United States. An American president can probably take a sanguine view as to whether the more extreme things said and written about him will cost him re-election.

The Way Forward

Barack Obama will also derive some comfort from the fact that, historically, and especially in the post-Second World War era, American presidents have tended to be reelected. But less comforting is the example of the ones who did not in the last three decades - Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush - and what they share with the present incumbent of the White House. Most worrying for Obama is the unemployment rate, which remains stubbornly above nine percent withmany forecasters arguing this is unlikely to change much in the next two years. For each of the one-term presidents above, the average annual employment rate in their re-election year was between 7.1 and 7.7 percent. When Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were reelected, this figure ranged from 5.4 to 7.5 percent.

The likelihood is that Obama will have to campaign for a second term with the highest election-year unemployment rate since the Great Depression. It would take a remarkable job-creating recovery in the next two years for unemployment to fall below the seven percent mark, never mind to approach the five percent mark. Only twice in the post-war era has unemployment fallen by more than two percentage points over a two-year period: in the early 1950s and the early 1980s.

Certainly, one should not be too deterministic about the influence of unemployment on the political fortunes of presidents. But the second problem for Barack Obama is more directly political. He will be tested in the next two years by Republicans who, since his election, have done very well from a disciplined strategy of being the 'party of no' in Congress - with the Tea Party movement targeting anyone who might have considered co-operation with the president on any issue. In the short term, at least, the influence of the more right-wing conservatives will have been reinforced by the midterm results.

To a great extent, Obama's prospects for re-election depend on how he reacts to and plays off the Republican agenda. During Congress' lame-duck session in November and December, many Democrats criticised the president for the decision to freeze the pay of federal employees and the deal that will extend the Bush tax cuts that he had promised to reverse. Making too many compromises that look like capitulations to the Republicans raises the possibility of challenge from the left in the Democratic primaries.

Such a challenge is very unlikely to succeed - not least in the absence so far of a credible candidate. But Obama's team is only too aware that those three recent one-term presidents were also the ones who were seriously challenged for their party's nomination.

In a way, the midterm result was the worst of both worlds for Obama. Had the Republicans won both the House and the Senate, this would have created a clear political demarcation between the White House and a Republican Congress. With the Democrats in control of the Senate, the picture is muddied. The Republicans will not miss a chance in the next two years to blame all the country's woes on Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, something they have perfected in the last two years. It will not help the president either that the third figurehead in the Tea Party's 'Axis of Socialism', outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, remains centre-stage after getting herself re-elected as the leader of the House Democrats.

Barack Obama has scored some substantial wins in his first two years in office, even if the outcomes angered most on the right and some on the left. If anything, the political atmosphere between now and 2012 could be more turbulent and less conducive to presidential success. This month's State of the Union speech will reveal how (or indeed, whether) the president intends re-launch himself for the rest of his term, and on what platform he will seek re-election.

(Nicolas Bouchet is a researcher at the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London.)


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