Hell to the Chief

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Speaker of the House John Boehner before delivering the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 25, 2011The 2012 State of the Union Address Tuesday night featured a president on the ropes. With President Obama facing record national debt, low approval ratings and high unemployment, his charge — determined by a mix of Constitutional requirement and political precedent — was to report on the state of a struggling union, and set the agenda for Congress in the critical year to come. It is a times such as this where the challenge of leadership are greatest. The ultimate agenda-setting venue, the State of the Union speech, could be a final opportunity for President Obama to advance his vision of the United States. As such, the speech also serves as a launching pad for the 2012 reelection effort for an incumbent president facing what is sure to be a formidable challenge.

First, let us be honest with each other. President Obama is not going to have any real chance of passing a fourth-year agenda through the House, or a narrowly divided Senate. Election year politics, especially with President’s such vulnerable numbers, dictate an uncooperative Congress. The Republicans will aim for the defeat of Obama without any added opportunities to claim credit. Congressional Democrats will be marginally more helpful, but eventually will turn to their own electoral incentive. Presidents always face these tests, but few survive such a test during such challenging times. Tuesday night was critical for the President to frame the debate that will determine the future and the legacy of his administration.

The choice Obama is setting for the American people is fairness, based on the division between the so-called 99 percent of lowest income earners, and the top one percent. The president will stake his campaign on the notion that he is the president of the 99 percent, and that the Republican opponent will represent the top one percent. Further, Obama will try to push the argument that the top income earners are not doing their fair share, and should not be given some of the breaks they received in the tax policies of the Bush Administration. It is a populist tone at a time when populist movements are quite possible, given the frustration of the American people.

Such a debate, as framed by the President is based not on a record, which he was timid in defending Tuesday night. The debate is based on a choice, in which the president will clearly ask Americans to choose between himself and the Republican opponent not solely their on records, but on whom will be represented by each. It is clear that Obama is hoping that the slow pace of economic growth and progress, which is far too slow to be seriously discernible by most Americans, will not be the focus of the campaign. For Obama, that is the past because it has to be. What does it mean for 2012?

The situation Obama faces in 2012 is strange. A president who accomplished national health care and the killing of Osama Bin Laden appears poised to run away from his record and focus on the prospects. This is typical of a candidate running for an open seat. It is not about what has been accomplished, or at least not explicitly. It is about what can be done. It is about what will be done in comparison to the opponent. Essentially, the last sentence is telling. It is about the opponent. In most years we would discount the prospects of a president facing Obama’s challenges. His record, while debatable, does not seem to resonate with voters. His only option is to focus on the opponent. He is vulnerable. The economic and approval ratings he faces are terrible. But his long odds are not 99-to-1, despite his bet on it. They are better. Everything we know about presidential elections means Obama is unlikely to get reelected.

Enter the Republican field. After all, it is clear that it will be a vital part of the Obama strategy. Thus far we have three contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and three different winners. The favorite, by a slim margin, seems to be Mitt Romney: a rich moderate with questionably conservative credentials from the state of Massachusetts. That is a tough sell in the Republican crowd, which explains the erratic electoral results thus far. Republican voters are starving for an alternative. The focus of Romney supporters is heavy on the independent voters, but they seem to forget he has no appreciable base of strong support. That is also important and can be sufficient to win. See Bush, 2004.

Newt Gingrich has more skeletons than a Halloween store. This alone is an early Christmas president for an incumbent president with a huge war chest to continuously remind us that he asked Marianne for an open marriage. That is only the beginning, and I have probably said enough.

Rick Santorum has no money, and will have a tough time gaining support among independents because of his far right views on social issues.

Ron Paul has a rabid group of supporters and no chance to win the nomination.

So we are left with three choices for the Republican candidate. Many have asked whom Obama would like to face. Most assume Romney would be the candidate he would least like to face. I humbly disagree based on the beginning of the Obama campaign. In fact, I think Obama may have the best chance against Mitt Romney. Obama wants to make this election a choice between the president who represents the 99 percent or the one percent. While the 99 percent is certain to encompass, to state the mathematically obvious, almost anyone, the Republicans are set to provide Obama the opportunity to run against the portrait of the one percent. If one were to paint a perfect portrait of the one percent, placing Mitt Romney in that category is an easy sell based upon everything we know about him. This would leave Romney to turn to a base that could fit comfortably in your local Waffle House.

Newt Gingrich has big and interesting ideas, but Republicans have strong reasons to doubt his discipline and electability because of the Halloween store problem. He seems easy to brand as a Washington insider because of his career choices, whether one wants to call the activity lobbying or not. Further, it is highly doubtful we have seen the last of Marianne.

Then there is Rick Santorum. He has controversial views on social issues and will be a hard sell for moderates. However, he tells a compelling small town, working class story, and he energizes the Republican base with what is perhaps too conservative of a record. He would be the hardest of the Republican candidates to label as a “one-percenter.” He is the Republican candidate that consistently beats the drum of manufacturing and middle class America. It seems a case can be made that Romney is the least electable Republican and Santorum the most electable. Note, I do not take this statement lightly, and I know what it says about the Republican field.

On that note, did anyone see Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels in the rebuttal?

Obama stakes his presidency on a 99-to-1 shot. I think he likes his odds.

Photo: President Barack Obama shakes hands with Speaker of the House John Boehner before delivering the State of the Union (US Government Work/Public Domain) via the White House Flickr Photostream.
Paul Rutledge

Paul Rutledge

Dr. Paul Rutledge is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Planning at the University of West Georgia. Rutledge teaches and conducts research on American national government, including the presidency, state and local politics, interest groups, the media and politics, and agenda setting and public policy. His research has appeared in Political Research Quarterly and he also has authored multiple contributions to the Encyclopedia of U.S. Campaigns, Elections, and Electoral Behavior. Professor Rutledge has also written commentaries on the 2010 State of the Union Address and the 2010 health care bill, which were picked up by CNN Newswire, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post and the Times-Georgian. His current research continues to focus on the ability of the president to influence public policy through the content of his agenda, the political calculations that impact the size and scope of the president’s agenda, presidential coattails, and comparing agenda-setting processes in presidential systems (primarily in Latin America).