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Posted at 09:09 AM ET, 08/04/2011

Obama Five-oh

Happy birthday, Mr. President! Now let’s talk about the sick economy and do some Electoral College calculations (or would you rather talk about scheduling a colonoscopy?).

The good news is that, although unemployment remains hideous, you, personally, are employed, which is always good for a man at the half-century mark in an economy that increasingly views middle-aged workers as health care time bombs. The bad news is that you may get laid off in just 17 months. I don’t think that’s the likeliest outcome, but recent events have made the 2012 election look very much in play.

The Republicans may yet bail you out by nominating someone who wants to return to the Gold Standard, or who says fluoride in the drinking water is a communist plot, or who has pledged fealty to a demon dwelling in the hollow Earth. But I think it’ll be Mitt Romney. Romney’s not the perfect candidate, but he’s not going to scare 2/3rds of the electorate like some of the GOP hopefuls. He’s the frontrunner and frontrunners usually win.

A race against Romney will be all about competing visions of economic policy. But mostly it will be about whether the country thinks you, Mr. President, can heal an economy that seems to be mysteriously ailing in ways that no one has fully diagnosed. The old Keynesian cure hasn’t took. Probably we’re witnessing a long-term contraction due to a long-term housing bubble and all the pathologies contained therein. The debt ceiling deal effectively means that, except for extending the payroll tax holiday, there’s no more stimulus in the short run and everyone’s just going to have to wait out a very prolonged and sad and feeble and dispiriting recovery — one that won’t get us back to economic health prior to November 2012.

Your main talking point boils down to the notion that, without your policies, the situation would be even more dire. Three years ago you were running on a slogan of Change We Can Believe In, and now you’re going to have to use the slogan It Could Have Been Worse. A tough sell, that.

But I promised to make this about the Electoral College. Indeed, all conversations in the nation’s capital from this point forward must include, at least in passing, some reference to the electoral map. And here I bring great birthday tidings!

It turns out that you go into 2012 with some wiggle room on the electoral map. Most states aren’t in play, or won’t be unless you’re really, really in trouble. You get that huge head start with the mother lodes of electoral votes in California, New York and Illinois. The 2008 race wasn’t that close: You narrowly won North Carolina, Indiana, Florida, Ohio and Virginia, but you could have lost all five of those states, totalling 86 electoral votes, and still have beaten John McCain.

Complacency would be a mistake, however. I could flip those five big states with just half a million votes strategically changed from Democratic to Republican. You’d have been sitting at 279 electoral votes. But with a little more fiddling, McCain could have come out on top. Give him Nebraska’s second congressional district, that rogue electoral vote that you narrowly won. Give him New Hampshire (4) and Iowa (7). Those were all pretty close calls. Now McCain’s over the hump, with 271 by my calculation.

And then there’s Pennsylvania. That’s 20 electoral votes (21 in 2008). That’s a hard-hit part of the country that you can’t assume will go for you once again. You don’t have to win Ohio, don’t have to win Florida, don’t have to win Virginia, Indiana or North Carolina (or Missouri, which went by a hair for McCain), but you’re in trouble if you lose all of them.

And you absolutely have to win Pennsylvania.

But I guess you can start worrying about that tomorrow. Happy birthday! And many happy returns (which, honest, is not yet another reference to the election).

By  |  09:09 AM ET, 08/04/2011

 
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