President Barack Obama inherited an economy from George W. Bush — he also inherited a re-election strategy. When running for re-election on a record where the successes and disappointments of the first term of office did not easily merit a second, the Bush strategy was to double-down on core supporters, fire a missile into the biography of the challenger and micro-target potential supporters with the precision of a Google search engine.
The result in 2004 was a road map for future incumbents to follow.
And follow, Obama did. The Obama electoral victory had its own unique flair, but in the end, it was built solidly on the Bush 2004 model. Just as in 2004, the incumbent faced a weak challenger but an energized opposition. Just as in 2004, the incumbent’s first debate performance upset the initial impression of invincibility. And just as in 2004, the incumbent’s “ground game” — a catch-all term for get out the vote efforts — was the critical ingredient to victory.
After 2004, Democrats and their apologists in the press spent a few months trying to understand where all those evangelicals in Ohio came from. The same process will now play out on the Republican side: Not just how Obama was able to turn out his core voters from 2008, but more of them. There is another comeuppance coming. In 2004, the Democrats realized they had a problem with those who fear God; now the Republicans see they have a problem with people who don’t fear Latinos.
It is tempting to conclude that the Democrats now enjoy a demographic stranglehold on national politics. The nation is indeed growing less white and more dominated by women. But extrapolating from the present into the future with a straight line rarely works out well. I recall after 2004 some voices in my own party (and the press) predicting a permanent Republican majority. Parties adjust. Politics shift. And straight-line prophecies fail.
And nothing is as certain to upset the straight-line projections of the “demography is destiny” crowd as a second-term presidency. There has not been a successful second-term since Reagan’s, and even that one was bruised by Iran-contra.
I remember that shortly after Bush’s re-inauguration in 2005, there was a priority list of about a half-dozen agenda items lining the walls of the White House political shop. Among them were immigration reform and Social Security reform. Both were launched within months, both were dead in the water soon after.