In December 1994, after Democrats had lost 54 House and eight Senate seats and with Bill Clinton’s approval rating at 42 percent, I bet my wife $10 million that Clinton would be a one-term president.
In 1996, after he was re-elected, I wrote her a check. Fortunately, she didn’t try to cash it.
President Barack Obama’s 2010 House losses were worse: 63 seats, and his Senate losses, six, almost as bad. His approval rating is 45 percent.
This year, chastened by experience, I wouldn’t bet one way or another on his re-election.
This is in spite of the decisive prediction last month of two political scientists I respect a lot, the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato and Alan Abramowitz of Emory University that “Barack Obama is down for the count, will have an early lame duck presidency and will be out of the White House in two years.”
They went on to say that “if President Obama is smart, he will try to salvage his term by announcing now that he will not undertake a hopeless campaign for re-election and instead form a bipartisan national unity government to try to hold the nation together until his successor, inevitably a Republican, is elected in November 2012.”
Their political logic is that Obama goes into the 2012 race with likely majorities in 17 states representing 200 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win, compared to 180 for the Republican nominee -- but with little chance, based on 2010 results, to win many of the 12 swing states that account for the remaining 158 electoral votes.
No question, Obama faces an uphill climb. To get over 270, he needs to carry most or all of the following states he won in 2008 (with their likely EVs after re-apportionment): Michigan (16), Colorado (9), Nevada (6), New Mexico (5), Ohio (18), Pennsylvania (20), Wisconsin (10).
Those states will total 84, so he can lose, say, New Mexico and Colorado. Sabato and Abramowitz are probably right to figure he has little chance in other 2008 states he carried -- Virginia (13), North Carolina (15), Iowa (6), Indiana (11) and Florida (29).
Sabato and Abramowitz grant that Clinton, too, was given up for dead and came back, but claim that “Obama lacks the political skills necessary to adjust to the new realities of divided government.
“Unlike Bill Clinton, Obama is an inflexible liberal who couldn’t find the center with both hands.”
Well, without predicting that Obama will win, I’d say that he certainly can. And perhaps the key to it is that he should act like a national unity president without declaring himself a lame duck -- which would automatically finish off any chance to get anything done in the next two years.
Obama is showing right now that he’s no “inflexible liberal,” but a highly pragmatic one who, as conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer notes, has already beaten Clinton’s record in moving to the center.
Since the election, Obama has cut a deal with Republicans on taxes and unemployment compensation, met with business leaders he previously bashed, signed a trade deal with South Korea and signaled he plans to address debt reduction and tax reform next year.
He has ticked off liberals in his own party, but it’s unlikely that anybody on the left is going to run against him -- particularly, one veteran Democratic guru told me, because it would mean trying to defeat the nation’s first African-American president.
A significant challenge in an incumbent president’s party is one of the classic harbingers of defeat -- one of American University professor Allan Lichtman’s famous “13 keys” to the presidency.
Another, though, is waging an unpopular war or either scoring a major foreign policy victory or defeat. Afghanistan is unpopular and certainly represents a threat to Obama, who has no prospects of a foreign policy triumph.
The major factors, however, will be economy and the quality of the GOP candidate.
Ronald Reagan’s popularity was at 41 percent in 1982 when unemployment was at 9.7 percent, but he got triumphantly re-elected by bringing it down to 7 percent in 1984.
Clinton was at 42 percent with unemployment at 6.1 percent in 1994 and got re-elected with it at 5 percent.
Jimmy Carter had a 50 percent approval rating in 1978 with unemployment at 6.1 percent. He was defeated when it was up to 7.1 percent -- and, amid the Iran hostage crisis, of course.
George H.W. Bush had a 58 percent approval rating in 1990 with unemployment at 5.6 percent. He was defeated when it went up to 7.5 percent.
Obama is in treacherous territory with unemployment at 9.8 percent. His administration is forecasting improving that to only 8.5 percent by 2012. He had best do better than that.
Meanwhile, the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll indicates that Obama would beat former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, 55 percent to 33 percent but outpoll former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by 47 to 40.
The message is that the GOP needs to nominate someone who can appeal to independent voters in order to defeat Obama, and not a right-wing ideologue.
That’s also the key to an Obama victory -- winning back the independents who supported him in 2008 but voted Republican in 2010.
The way to do that is to go back to the national unity theme he enunciated in 2008 -- but, this time, show he means it.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)