Barack Obama and the power of good luck

November 2, 2012

In politics -- as in life -- it's better to be lucky than good.

And, as the last week of the presidential campaign has made clear, President Obama is both -- benefitting from a series of political advantageous moments that few could have predicted even a month ago.

 

On Friday, the final jobs report before the election showed the unemployment rate under eight percent -- although barely at 7.9 percent -- for the month of October and a strong(ish) 171,000 jobs created in the month. It marked the second straight month that the unemployment rate had been below 8 percent, allowing Obama to close the campaign by arguing that his policies have (finally) started working.

Earlier in the week, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy up and down the Eastern Seaboard allowed Obama to throw off the candidate cloak and put on the commander-in-chief jacket. (Literally.)  In Washington Post-ABC News tracking polls, roughly eight in ten voters said they thought the President was doing either an "excellent" or "good" job in his handling of Hurricane Sandy.

And for that sliver of independent and/or undecided voters who hate the nastiness and bickering of partisan politics, the pictures of Obama working hand in glove with Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were just the sort of thing that they want to see.

(To be clear: Yes, we know that that Hurricane Sandy is a disaster and a tragedy for millions of people. But, it happened in the final week of the campaign so removing it from the political context is both naive and wrongheaded.)

Obama's luck or, put another way, the good breaks that seem to have fallen his way in the last week of this campaign are nothing new in a political rise that has been fueled by his capacity to make good on lucky breaks.

As David Maraniss, author of the terrific "Barack Obama: A Life", wrote in a piece for the Post earlier this year

"All in keeping with a lucky streak that propelled him from obscurity into national prominence eight short years ago. That is when John Kerry, the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer, asked him to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 national convention and when his most formidable opponents for the U.S. Senate were knocked out of the race, one after another, by troublesome reports involving their treatment of former wives. Luck is the residue of design, the baseball wise man Branch Rickey once said, and there is no doubt that Obama had a political design that made it possible for him to take advantage of the breaks that went his way that year, just as he did four years later when he outmaneuvered Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain on his way to the White House."

While the last week of the campaign illustrates Obama's luck/ability to capitalize on good breaks most pointedly, there are plenty of other examples during the campaign of how circumstances conspired to aid him in a race where he remains a slight favorite for a second term.

To wit:

* Mitt Romney's secretly filmed "47 percent" comments played directly into the caricature that Obama had been building of his opponent -- out of touch, caring only for his wealthy friends -- in TV ads throughout the summer and early fall. The story -- and its fallout -- also forced Romney on defense for virtually the entire month of September and allowed Obama to build broad leads in national and swing state polling.

* Romney's inability to put away a b-list (at best) roster of primary opponents until spring forced the eventual Republican nominee to drag himself to the ideological right on issues like immigration and health care. That rightward lurch handed Obama's campaign team more fodder than they could even have hoped to have to bash Romney as a shape-shifter without any core set of beliefs.  And, the extended primary also forced Romney to spend tens of millions, which left him struggling to compete with Obama on television over the summer months.

* The Supreme Court upheld Obama's health care law thanks to the swing vote of -- wait for it -- conservative Chief Justice John Roberts. Had the Court thrown out Obama's signature accomplishment of his first term, it would have led to weeks of negative press and questioning within Democratic strategist circles about why he pushed health care at all.

If any/all of those things played out differently, President Obama would not likely have been able to head into this final weekend of the campaign as the favorite. But, they didn't -- and he is.

All of the above is not to say that Obama's status as a slight favorite on Nov. 6 is due exclusively or even primarily to luck. As the cliche goes, you make your own luck and, to a large extent, Obama has done just that.

Obama allies will note that it's not luck that the unemployment rate dipped below 8 percent, it's the result of sound policies the president put into place years ago. But, while Obama clearly had agency in attempting to turn the economy around, no one -- including him -- could have forecast that the unemployment rate would drop under 8 percent for the final two months before the election.

And, when it comes the to the "47 percent", Obama supporters are right to note that the predicate had been laid by the campaign that Romney was looking out for the wealthy and saying one thing publicly and another thing privately. But, that a video -- not just audio! -- would emerge of Romney at a private fundraiser directly reinforcing that argument in the fall of 2012 is a dream not even the Obama campaign team would have dared to imagine six months ago.

To call Obama lucky does not diminish what he has done with the good breaks that have come his way but rather to acknowledge that good breaks do always seem to go his way.  And that has definitely been the case over this final week of the campaign. If he wins, Obama will have himself and his campaign team to thank -- and a little bit of luck too.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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