It's not hard to find signs that President Barack Obama is destined for a single term. Unemployment continues to hover at 9 percent, and a June poll from American Research Group says 39 percent of Americans disapprove of how he has handled the economy, which 71 percent of registered voters say will be "extremely or very important." When asked whom they'd vote for in the 2012 presidential election, 47 percent said the "Republican Party's candidate for president," as opposed to the 39 percent who would support Obama.
Obama isn't the only incumbent to start a re-election campaign with low approval ratings, but others enjoyed the advantage of a growing economy. Ronald Reagan might not have earned the reputation for political genius he's been credited with had the economy stalled in 1984 instead of growing at a rapid clip. Likewise, Bill Clinton might not have regained his title as the "comeback kid" if the economy hadn't begun to supercharge in 1995 and 1996. For Obama, even if the economy grows quickly in 2012, unemployment will still top 8 percent, and per-capita income growth (a major predictor of presidential elections) is projected to stagnate.
Taken together, this is bad news for the White House. Nonetheless, there are reasons for optimism.
For starters, Obama is far more popular than he should be under the current conditions. The relationship between presidential approval and unemployment is well established, and with the jobless rate at 9.2 percent, Obama should have approval numbers in the high 30s, on par with George H.W. Bush's performance in the last year of his term. According to Gallup, however, his job approval for the current quarter (from April to July 19) averages to 47 percent, as does his year-to-date approval rating. Obama maintains high approval ratings among core Democratic constituencies -- liberals, African Americans, and the poor -- and a plurality of Americans still trust him to do right by the country. On the current budget negotiations, for example, 47 percent say that Obama is "putting the country's interests first," compared with 24 percent for Republicans in Congress.
Likewise, a plurality of Americans hold negative views about the Republican Party as a whole, by a margin of 47 percent to 42 percent. This extends to the state level; Republican governors in swing states are deeply unpopular with their constituents. Governor Rick Scott of Florida leads the loser pack with an approval rating of 29 percent -- the worst of any governor in the country. Governor John Kasich of Ohio and Governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania follow with approval ratings of 33 percent and 39 percent, respectively. This doesn't guarantee votes for President Obama, but it could drive Democratic turnout in those states if activists use those unpopular governors to mobilize voters and increase turnout.
Obama's chief Republican competitors aren't popular with the public, either. As the moderate former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney is best positioned to challenge Obama in a general election, but in a head-to-head matchup, even he trails Obama. What's more, if early fundraising is a sign of voter interest and intensity, Obama is far ahead of his Republican competitors. As of last week, the president had raised $85.6 million for his re-election bid -- twice as much as the entire Republican field has brought in.
Yes, voters hate the sluggish economy, and they are dissatisfied with the country's direction. So far, though, that hasn't translated into personal disdain for the president. Voters are still reluctant to saddle him with responsibility for existing economic conditions. By a 2-to-1 margin, according to a survey released last week by Quinnipiac University, voters still say that President George W. Bush is culpable for the current situation. This also holds true among independent voters -- 49 percent blame Bush; just 24 percent blame Obama.
It's easy to say that none of this will matter come October 2012, when the economy is still sluggish and unemployment is still high. If history and political science offer any insight, presidents lose when economic conditions are poor. But today's political circumstances are unusual. Incumbents have never raised this much money, the electorate has never been this diverse, and -- with the exception of the 1930s -- the economy has never been this terrible. Political-science models are useful but limited, and we don't have enough data to make conclusive judgments about the upcoming election.
At this point in the game, even with poor conditions, I'd call the 2012 election for Obama. I'd do so not because of his personal popularity or his massive campaign operation but because of the Republican Party. The GOP has been captured by its most extreme members, and even the most moderate Republican candidate will be forced to kowtow to the party's far-right wing to win the nomination. As Obama struggles with slow economic growth, the GOP's fanaticism could be the thing that saves him. High unemployment aside, if the history of presidential politics shows anything, it's that when you give voters a choice between the incumbent they know and the radicals they don't, the former will win.