Now more than halfway through his third year in office—with the economy flat-lining, American prestige evaporating, and public anxiety spiking—Barack Obama is the most vulnerable incumbent president since Jimmy Carter. The election is still 14 months away, but it’s not too early to see the broad outlines of the GOP’s case against the president.
Economic Malpractice: Obama inherited a tough economy, but his stewardship has in many respects made the situation worse.
The unemployment rate stands at 9.1 percent (it was 7.8 percent the month Obama took office). July marked the 30th consecutive month in which the unemployment rate was above the 8 percent level that the Obama administration said it would not exceed as a result of its stimulus program. Chronic unemployment is worse than during the Great Depression, while the share of the eligible population holding a job (58.1 percent) has declined to the lowest level since the early 1980s.
The housing crisis is also worse than in the Great Depression. Home values are worth roughly one-third less than they were five years ago. Consumer confidence has plunged to the lowest level since the Carter presidency. And from the first quarter of 2010 through the first quarter of 2011, we experienced five consecutive quarters of slow growth. America’s GDP for the second quarter of this year was an anemic 1.3 percent; in the first quarter, it was 0.4 percent. Even more problematic for the president, there are virtually no signs that things will improve anytime soon. He now has to hope for an economic miracle.
Given this atrocious record, Republicans should repeatedly affirm what Obama’s senior counselor, David Plouffe, has acknowledged: The president “owns” the economy. It’s the product of his handiwork. And if Obama is reelected, we will get more of the same. The Republican theme for the 2012 campaign should consist of two words: Had enough?
Leading from Behind: The president’s foreign policy has been characterized by strained relations with our allies and weakness toward our enemies. He’s shown indifference to human rights and an eagerness to cede American sovereignty to international bodies. And he has been half-hearted in fighting the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The commander in chief is “psychologically” out of Afghanistan, Bob Woodward said in 2010, and that’s now true across the board.
The GOP line of attack against the president’s national security record should be three-fold. First, he has virtually no foreign policy successes to speak of (even Jimmy Carter could claim the Camp David Accords as a success).
Second, the president is sending young Americans to fight and to die in wars he finds distracting and barely worth mentioning.
Third, Republicans should (once again) build their case around the words of Obama’s own aides. One adviser, quoted in the New Yorker, infamously described the president’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” And in discussing the Obama administration’s belief that the relative power of the United States is declining, this adviser said, “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world. But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.”
At the heart of Obama’s foreign policy is the belief that America’s days as a dominant world power are over, and it’s a good thing at that. The president and his aides, after all, tend to view America’s role in the world as arrogant and imperialistic. It tells us something that every previous president was instinctively inclined to defend the United States, while Obama is far more inclined to apologize for her and place himself above her. He has undermined America’s moral self-confidence.
In contrast to Obama’s endless apologies, the GOP candidate needs to speak with authentic pride and confidence in America and explain what that belief is rooted in—a commitment to liberty and self-government, democratic capitalism, and civic and character-forming institutions.
Political Fraudulence: Obama’s appeal in 2008 was aesthetic. He promised to make politics less fractious, our debate more elevated and honest, and America more unified. He would “turn the page” on the old way of doing business.
In fact, an astonishing number of Obama’s promises have turned out to be fraudulent, including doing away with earmarks, not hiring lobbyists in his administration, being the most transparent administration in history, and working in a bipartisan fashion.
On the night of his election, Obama said, “I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.” In practice, the president libels and routinely misrepresents the views of those with whom he disagrees. On his Midwest bus tour last week—when he wasn’t blaming his economic troubles on the Arab Spring, the Japanese tsunami, ATM machines, and a “run of bad luck”—the president repeatedly accused Republicans of refusing “to put the country ahead of party” because they would “rather see their opponents lose than see America win.”
This is merely a preview of coming attractions. In anticipation that Mitt Romney might be the eventual GOP nominee, Politico reported that “Barack Obama’s aides and advisers are preparing to center the president’s reelection campaign on a ferocious personal assault on Mitt Romney’s character and business background.”
“Unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney,” a prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House is quoted as saying. So much for “changing the tone.”
As a result of this approach, Washington is characterized by unusual acrimony and distrust. The Republican nominee should therefore hammer the president’s public character based on his political conduct. His election was hardly the triumph of hope, comity, and cooperation.
The overarching story for Obama’s opponent, though, should be that the president is the architect of American decline, which in turn has left the public deeply uneasy and dejected. According to the Democratic pollster Mark Penn, “The country is going through one of its longest sustained periods of unhappiness and pessimism ever.” Almost 4 in 10 Americans believe we’re in a state of permanent decline. Americans’ satisfaction with the way things are going in the country fell to 11 percent last week.
The parallels between Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter are hauntingly familiar. And if the eventual Republican nominee employs the right strategy against President Obama, America’s 44th president will suffer the same fate as America’s 39th president.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.