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.
And that was after Bush campaigned on both items, and could claim some kind of political mandate for both. In the end, being re-elected does not convey support for everything one says in a campaign. In many cases, people are holding their noses when they vote.
President Obama should not overlook this problem. Like Bush, he ran a harsh and caustic re-election campaign against his challenger. He did not even bother to run on an agenda other than the preservation and extension of his first-term priorities. Should he try to extrapolate from his political success some kind of mandate for specific policies, he will be repeating a major mistake of his predecessor.
Just as bad would be a deliberate effort to try to make history. Presidents who try and shape their historical legacies often trip over the roots of reality. In Bush’s case, it was Hurricane Katrina. Let’s see what blocks Obama’s path — it may be something big like a war, or something close like a scandal, or something systemic, like a perpetually weak economy (some argue it was Benghazi, but that didn’t trip him). Whatever it is, Obama is right now not accounting for it.
My deepest worry is that it is Israel and Iran. We have not years but months before the moment of truth is reached with Iran and its ambitions to wipe out Israel. There was enough discussion about Iran during the campaign and both the president and his challenger created the impression of bipartisan consensus. Reading what was said during the campaign, the Iranian mullahs themselves expressed no preference for the winner — they saw Obama and Romney as roughly equal evils. I hope, in this case, that the mullahs are right.
But my fear is that Obama will seek in the Middle East the kind of legacy-shaping grand bargain that enticed his predecessors — and then go even bigger.
I worry he will seek to settle all outstanding major issues at once — Iran’s nuclear threat, the ambitions of the Palestinian people, Israel’s long-term borders and Jerusalem. I worry that he will not prepare the nation for the risk of war, when military action is precisely what he will need to threaten Iran with. I worry that he will resort to the kind of “come, let us reason together” rhetoric which ignores both the history and political genetics of the region.
Most of all, I worry that he will confuse political craftsmanship with statesmanship. If he does, he wouldn’t be the first two-term president to do so. In fact, he would be the third in a row. And that’s yet another reason — at least in my case — to hope that straight-line prophecies rarely come true.
Noam Neusner is a principal with the communications firm 30 Point Strategies. He was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.