Conservatives should understand that the president’s reelection prospects may be affected by events beyond his control, but he nevertheless can make the best of bad situations and thereby bolster his standing.
In some instances, there will be little President Obama can do. If gas prices continue to spike, he has few tools at his disposal. He can play the populist card against the big, bad oil companies, but his failures in energy policy (especially the refusal to develop domestic shale oil and natural gas reserves) have to a large degree set him up to take the hit.
Likewise, a double-dip recession, if it comes, isn’t going to be alleviated by election time. In giving the president his payroll tax cut extension and in presenting a plausible budget and tax reform plan, Republicans have largely insulated themselves from blame. Again, Obama will have no place to hide.
But in other instances, the power of incumbency may help Obama. In these instances, past failures may be swept aside by new developments.
Take Iran. The president’s engagement policy failed. Sanctions have failed to stop the Iranian nuclear program. He made an historic misstep in failing to back the Green Revolution. In his “leading from behind” mode he seems determined to delay military action and downplay the threat of action, in effect subcontracting out the defense of the West to Israel.
But suppose Israel does strike, successfully, and Obama in the bright light of public opinion and with reelection staring him in the face provides Israel with diplomatic and/or logistical support. No matter how Republicans will bemoan the lack of leadership, he could well come out smelling like a rose, ironically thanks to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Then there is Obamacare. As Karl Rove points out, if the Supreme Court strikes down the law, the president has a couple options:
Mr. Obama could announce he respects the court’s decision and pledge to fashion a bipartisan solution to provide access to affordable health-care insurance for all Americans. This would help his re-election by repositioning him back in the political center, as he was in 2008 when he ran television ads that said “both extremes”— “government-run health care [and] higher taxes”—”are wrong.”
But he could instead lash out against the court’s majority—as he did in the Citizens United case upholding free speech for corporations—and insist on an even larger role in health care for Washington. Perhaps he would advocate a “public option” where government competes with private and not-for-profit health-insurance companies, hospital consortiums and the like.
Or then, again, he could lash out and tell us relatively little about how he intends to “fix” Obamacare. When he has “more flexibility,” he’ll let us know what he has in mind.
In these and other policy areas, Republicans should be wary and prepared for Obama to use the power of incumbency to his advantage. The left will push him to the extremes (rebuke Israel, go all in for the public option), but as he did in 2008 Obama will surely strike a pose of moderation, so long as the election is in front of him.
This is why his whispered words to the Russian president are so potent. In 2008 Obama could speak like a centrist; Now, there are grounds for Mitt Romney to claim Obama’s first and strongest instincts are to go left. Only so long as an election looms will he sound oh-so-reasonable on domestic policy (taxes only on the “rich,” he’ll vow) and stalwart on foreign policy (he’s got Israel’s back, don’t you know?)
In sum, Obama may respond to events in ways designed to soothe moderates and woo swing states. In that event it will be up to Republicans to make the case it’s all a pose.