The Spectacle Blog

Peter Beinart Has a Point

By on 4.6.11 | 4:22PM

John Podhoretz takes issue with Peter Beinart's assertion that President Obama will be re-elected in 2012 "because, well, incumbents usually win." Podhoretz writes:

Ah. Well, yes, it's true; three of the five presidents who preceded Obama did win reelection. But two didn't. And while two out of five is, statistically, 40 percent, I'm sure it doesn't feel like 40 percent to Barack Obama. That's why he's gotten a quick jump on 2012-both to raise a historic amount of money and to try to muscle out any possible primary challenges.

President Obama might not be taking any chances but I think Beinart has a point:

Barack Obama will almost certainly win because, well, incumbents usually win. In recent memory, the only incumbents who have lost reelection have had significant primary challenges: Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992. To find an incumbent who has lost without a major primary challenge, you have to go back to Herbert Hoover in 1932.

Of course, 1932 marked the first Presidential election since the 1929 stock market crash and with it the ascension of FDR. Given the circumstances under which Hoover lost the White House it isn't a stretch to argue that in order for President Obama to meet the same fate there would have to be a catastrophe greater than the 2008 financial meltdown or even the attacks of September 11, 2001. More importantly, President Obama's response to such a catastrophe would also have to be so utterly inadequate and incompetent so as to lose the confidence of those who had previously voted for him and who would have otherwise been inclined to support him next year. Those are very long odds indeed.

This isn't to say that Podhoretz doesn't have a valid argument:

A week, they used to say, is a lifetime in politics. The next 18 months before the 2012 elections are not a lifetime; they are akin to a millennium. The world is generating news at an unprecedented clip, and there's no way of telling what's next. Remember that the conflagration in the Arab world wasn't even a blip on the radar screen in December, or that an earthquake-tsunami-radiation disaster in Japan was the farthest thing from anybody's mind when the nation stopped for a few days in the wake of the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in January. No one had then heard of Scott Walker, even though he had won the governorship of Wisconsin.

In the next few months we could be seeing an inflation surge from oil and food prices; an Israel-Hamas war; a major shift in American public opinion on Afghanistan as a weird blowback effect from our involvement in Libya; continuing political unrest in state capitals in the United States; and Charlie Sheen returning to "Two and a Half Men." And this is just what is conceivably foreseeable. To be certain of a 2012 outcome in any direction, given the nature of the change going on outside the United States and the degree of worry and fear and anger inside the United States is delusional.

Indeed, who on on January 1, 2011 could have conceived that Hosni Mubarak would no longer be President of Egypt by the middle of February? Yet I would argue that if the world is generating news at an unprecedented clip that it is also generating unprecedented short term memory. Unless we are directly affected by a given event it is easy for that event to recede from our memory. Outside of the Gulf Coast, how many people have already forgotten about the Gulf oil spill never mind President Obama's response to it? Let us also not forget that many people are not politically engaged on a day-to-day basis and only think about elections in the weeks or even days before the vote. How many amongst us don't remember what we had to eat last Friday much less remember what happened a year ago today? Podhoretz is, of course, right to say that a lot can happen in 18 months but it doesn't mean it will necessarily adversely affect President Obama's chances at re-election.

Am I saying that President Obama can't be beaten? Absolutely not. History might not be on our side but neither is it written in stone. Nevertheless those of us who want to defeat President Obama at the ballot box should be under no illusions that unseating an incumbent President will be a walk in the park especially one without a primary challenger. Make no mistake. The odds against defeating President Obama are enormous and to pretend otherwise would be foolish.

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