We still await the Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, in general, and on the individual mandate to obtain health insurance coverage, in particular. It’s worth reminding ourselves that, regardless of the overheated rhetoric from both parties and over-caffeinated punditry, public attitudes on the issue of health reform and this law are already baked into the cake of this election. If President Obama were a stock, how people feel about the law would have factored into his price long ago. Sure, this decision will dominate editorial pages, talk shows, and even—briefly—supermarket-aisle and office-coffeemaker conversation. But this remains an election about the economy.
It’s also pretty clear that, despite a ray of sunshine earlier this year, the economy isn’t looking as bright today as it did in February and March. The global economic picture is depressing, with even the previously shining lights such as China, India, and Brazil experiencing slowdowns. The eurozone is in a recession that looks more deep than mild, and its sovereign-debt and banking crises are getting worse, not better. Domestically, there is cause for far more concern than would have been warranted at the beginning of this year. While the painful deleveraging process always dictated a slow recovery, economists are scrambling to revise their forecasts of economic growth to reflect the downward trend. The most frequently quoted number for gross domestic product is now 2 percent growth. Not that long ago, some forecasts had approached 3 percent. Unemployment is not expected to improve between now and the election. No incumbent wants to see an unemployment rate at 8 percent or higher. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the last to survive it in the Oval Office.
Of course, the economy was in a recession when Obama took the oath of office and worsened before he could possibly have done anything to turn it around. But it’s equally true that every month a president is in office, he takes on a little more ownership of the situation he inherited, whatever it is. By the time the incumbent gets four years in, if things are getting better, he will get credit or the blame, deserved or not. Reminders that it all went to hell on a different president and party’s watch doesn’t change that.
If the economy is much different in October and November than now, it’s more likely to be worse than better. There’s increased concern about the impending fiscal cliff, and business leaders’ lack of confidence that Congress will resolve it—either before the election or during a lame-duck session—is minimal and worsening. The odds of the U.S. going into a budgetary “sudden death” period, with the tax cuts all expiring and sequestration kicking in, are rising.
We are past the point where Obama can win a referendum election, regardless of whether it is on him or the economy. The success of his campaign is contingent upon two things. First, when focusing on the narrow sliver of undecided voters, between 6 and 8 percent of the electorate, the Obama team must make its candidate the lesser of two evils. It has to make the prospect of a Mitt Romney presidency so unpalatable that about half of those undecided voters will begrudgingly vote for reelection. Polling focusing on the undecided voters reveals they are a deeply pessimistic and angry segment of the electorate and don’t particularly like either candidate (fitting, because they don’t tend to like politicians). But they show signs of being more conservative than not. One unpublished analysis gives Republicans a 10-point advantage on the generic congressional ballot test among those undecided about the presidential race. Close analysis of the numbers shows that Obama might have an edge with between a third and a quarter of the currently undecided bloc. That’s cutting things awfully close.
The second key is turnout. African-Americans look solid for Obama and very likely to vote in high numbers, but young and Latino voters’ turnout appears problematic. Obama’s recent announcement of a newly articulated Dream Act-light policy could help, but it is too soon to see any data showing measurable change. It is what many Latino voters wanted to see, though Obama did it less than five months before the election when it could have been done three years ago. After deportations had reached levels higher than those under George W. Bush, it could take a lot to drive up Latino turnout.
This election is hardly over: The totally unexpected could happen that changes everything. Unless the Obama team can discredit Romney, though, convincing voters that he is a ruthless, uncaring corporate buccaneer, this will be a hard election to win. Probably the only upside for Obama is that the undecided voters appear so sour that they might believe almost anything disparaging said about any politician.
During this health care decision phase, just take a deep breath. That isn’t what the election will be about.
This article appears in the June 26, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.