Along with millions of other Americans last week, I received an annual holiday card from President Barack Obama and his family — a reminder that we citizens relate on a personal level to those who lead and represent us.
The card bore the President's, his wife's, and their daughters' signatures and the paw print of their dog Bo. I have been disappointed by Obama's performance in the presidency but the card, nonetheless, reminded me of some of the non-policy things that drew me to him in the first place — his obvious love for his wife and daughters, their extended family, which included a practical mother-in-law living in the White House, his very identity a reminder that, in the United States (as distinct from most other places), any man or woman with ambition and talent can rise through peaceful, democratic means from nowhere to the presidency.
Now, though his holiday card and a thousand other ways, our elected leader was trying to reestablish a connection to those who had supported him in the past.
I thought, then, not only of Obama's 2012 re-election effort but of the difficult year that lies in front of us.
- Perilous "objective conditions": The objective conditions, to use an old Marxist phrase, will be challenging in 2012. The American economy is reviving gradually but any one of several developments could be calamitous to our financial and economic well being: A default by a Euro-zone country or countries; the failure of a major European bank or banks; a trade war between the United States and China; a war in the Middle East; a drastic setback in Pakistan or Afghanistan; the continuing failure by White House and Congress to provide either near-term economic stimulus or long-debt reduction necessary to restore American and international confidence in our capacity to govern ourselves.
I have been appalled by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's patronizing lectures to the Europeans about the policy measures they need to take. I have been equally appalled by the broadsides undertaken by Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul which challenge the integrity of Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke, the sanest and most responsible financial policymaker in the United States.
Beneath the surface, many U.S. financial houses and businesses are still quite shaky. Ordinary citizens are coping with mountains of private debt and a high percentage of home owners are "underwater" on their mortgages — that is, the value of their homes is less than the money they owe on them. Republicans in Congress preach deficit reduction but refuse to include any new taxes in formulae to reduce the deficits. Both Obama and congressional Democrats continue to strike partisan poses as defenders of Social Security and Medicare, even though they know reforms are necessary to sustain them.
Objective conditions internationally also are problematic. Our troops are leaving Iraq but there is great uncertainty about what will follow. The central government still lacks stability. Shiites and Sunnis could resume their violence against each other. Iran is playing a naked power game in Iraq aimed at dominating that neighboring, equally oil-rich country.
Iran is nearing a nuclear-weapons capability which would threaten Israel. We are at stalemate in Afghanistan, which of and by itself is without strategic interest to the United States, and have signaled the Taliban that we will be gone within three years. We are close to an outright break in relations with nuclear-armed, radical-seething Pakistan.
We have openly and unsubtly fomented change in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Russia, among other countries, with an eye to enhancing democratic values and genuine self-determination in those places. But there is no guarantee, in the end, that the outcomes will be what we want.
The Obama administration, somewhat surprisingly, has opted to continue and intensify similar Bush administration initiatives, which got us far deeper into other countries' domestic politics than we might have wished. The Wilsonian impulses that got us ensnared in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are still motivating U.S. policy emphasizing "nation building" elsewhere. Well intended but dangerous, risky stuff.
- Chancy domestic politics: Obama overreached in his first two years in office with stimulus and health-care initiatives, which were unpopular and which led in large part to Democrats' loss of 63 seats in the House of Representatives and control of that body. Most of the lost Democratic seats were held by moderates. Many were claimed by Tea Partiers. The result: a House with a missing moderate middle and dominated by hard-liners of both political parties.
Democrats held the Senate in 2010, in part because several Tea Party diehards, who had won Republican Senate primaries, were rejected in the general election, saving several endangered Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid. But the 2012 outlook is far more dangerous for Senate Democrats. Some 23 Democratic-held Senate seats are at stake in 2012 (including two held by independents who caucus wtih Democrats), while only 10 Republican seats are at stake. Only retiring independent Sen. Joe Lieberman's seat in Connecticut would appear safe for Democrats. Retiring Sens. Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), Jeff Bingaman (New Mexico), Kent Conrad (North Dakota), Jim Webb (Virginia), and Herb Kohl (Wisconsin) all, in a worst case for Democrats, could be succeeded by Republicans.
Thus far only Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison are Republican retirees; both represent states which are likely to go Republican in a presidential-election year. It will take a near miracle for Democrats to hold Senate control in 2013. A betting man or woman thus would wager that the GOP will control both houses of Congress in 2013.
By traditional measures, Obama also is endangered. No president except Franklin Roosevelt ever has been reelected with a national unemployment rate above 7.8 percent. The rate in 2012 is expected to be somewhere between 8.5 and 9.2 percent. Obama's best hope for re-election rests with Republicans' nomination of a presidential candidate who frightens or unsettles moderate and independent voters. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich could be that candidate. Thus far GOP voters have liked his combative posture toward Obama and his apparent intelligence and depth in televised debates.
Fact is, though, that Gingrich's intelligence and depth are both about six inches deep. His past record is, in the military phrase, target-rich. His personal life has been a mess. Conflicts of interest are everywhere in his past and present.
Even partisan Republican former colleagues have little good to say about him. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has been through a presidential candidacy before, is knowledgeable in particular about financial and economic policy, and outpolls Obama strongly among independent and moderate voters who will decide the 2012 electoral outcome.
Obama got off to a fumbling start in his first two years and, over the past year, has focused more on building a 2012 electoral coalition than he has on governance. Yet he has the same intelligence and background now that he possessed in 2008. He still is liked personally by a majority of voters and considered a capable leader. You have to believe that, in a second term, he would be a wiser and more seasoned leader than he has been to date. He should not be written off as a candidate — especially not if Republicans go for the flaky Gingrich.
President Lyndon Johnson, not previously elected in his own right, feared in 1964 that he would face a Nelson Rockefeller or other moderate Republican opponent. But then Republicans nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater, whose verbal excesses just plain scared a majority of voters.
Johnson not only defeated Goldwater handily but Democrats swept to big majorities in both Senate and House. The Great Society followed.
The electoral math would not seem to allow for a 2012 Democratic congressional sweep. But Gingrich in 2012 could unsettle a strong majority of Americans just as much as Goldwater did in 1964. Romney, on the other hand, would not polarize voters and would enter the 2012 general-election campaign as the favorite to win.
Either a President Obama or President Romney will face in 2013 all the problems enumerated above. Both men have it in them to wage intelligent campaigns and to generate public confidence both in themselves and in the health of the democratic process.
If they are the general-election opponents, let us hope each wages that kind of campaign. We've had our limit of anger and polarization.