Democrats are more confident about President Obama’s chances for reelection than at any point since the economy bottomed out in the summer of 2009. Arguments used to batter him, like his inability to make a decision on a tough issue, have been neutralized by the daring raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
None of Obama's potential opponents have made any particularly bold moves, save Tim Pawlenty’s promise to wean Iowa off of ethanol subsidies. Mitt Romney fell on the grenade representing his support for an individual mandate in Massachusetts early in the campaign, alienating the conservative intelligentsia in the process.
And though Republicans forced the president to cut spending, they’re not reaping any political benefit, thanks to a stiletto-knife-to-Medicare budget that all but four GOP House members signed on to as their own.
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But political advantages are relative. No one, least of which his own staff, expects Obama to win by 10 million votes again. He has proved too polarizing—or incapable of extracting himself from the trap of polarization that afflicts all modern presidents. That means we’re in for, at most, an election where the losing candidate grosses more than 60 million votes. We think of game-changers as major events: one-time, snap-like, existential interjections that swing millions. But game-changers are better described as concentrated periods of political evolution with demographic slices of the electorate. Or they can be filters—constraints—that screen potential ballot casters with certain allegiances from the voting pool. Most can't be predicted.
But here are some potential slow-motion game-changers that worry the White House now:
1. Asia Erupts
The killing of bin Laden, rapturous in the moment, actively destabilizes South Asia and forces the president to break his promise about withdrawing the majority of American troops from Afghanistan by 2014. The conventional wisdom says the opposite will happen—that Obama will be able to accelerate the withdrawal. He might, at first. But even absent the alarmism from some quarters, it’s hard to argue that the region, right now, is more stable than it was a month ago. Obama wants to claim to Americans that he is winding down the two majors war of the Bush era, and that in doing so, he is restoring to America a sense of balance of equilibrium. India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan need to cooperate in order for that to be so.
2. Personal Income Slumps
There are hopeful signs for the economy in terms of job growth but plenty of grim ones, too, and that worries Obama's allies. Personal income growth could stall. In March of 2011, real (that is, inflation adjusted) disposable personal income increased by just 0.1 percent. Ominously, consumer spending declined. There is no single statistic that will be a better proxy for how individuals feel about their economic future. That’s one reason why administration economists placed so much faith in the payroll tax stimulus that passed in late 2010. One possibility is that certain groups of people will feel the economic recovery more quickly than others. Right now, those making less than $100,000 in under-performing industries are still feeling the lasting effects of the credit shutdown and mortgage crisis. If they’re young and entering the job market, they’re not finding solid, professional jobs. Obama can poll well with young professionals but needs them to believe that his economic policies are working before they’ll turn out for him in significant numbers.
3. Revenge of the Premiums
Health insurance premiums might rise dramatically in 2012, offsetting the solid political benefits that Democrats are reaping from the unpopularity of the Republican Medicare-reform plan. Many Democrats think Republicans have squeezed all the juice out of bashing Obama's health care reform as they can, but that’s based on the assumption that the insurance market responds to the prospect of reform deadlines as the Obama administration expects it to.
4. Turnout Doesn't Turn Out
Successful Republican efforts to undercut labor unions' political power in a number of Midwestern states could reduce the ability of labor to be a force multiplier, which means that fewer potential Democrats will be registered. In Florida, an effort to restrict voter-registration efforts could prove troubling. On the other hand, the GOP assault on public-employee unions might energize that vote.
5. He's a Disaster
Never underestimate the power of chaos of television to sour people on their government, especially if the president mucks up a disaster. Though the administration wound up handling the BP oil spill as well as could be expected, the perception at the time was the opposite, and doubtless contributed to the negative effect on Democrats' and Obama’s poll numbers. A president’s executive power—the actual assets and resources he can move—in the modern era rests primarily in two areas: warmarking and disaster response. A well-regarded FEMA chief, Craig Fugate, is working overtime after a spate of nasty tornadoes. If Obama’s inter-agency process fails him at some point down the line, Obama’s competence will be questioned. It's unlikely to happen but it could—as could any of these nightmare scenarios for the White House.