A beatable president
But only if a Republican candidate starts laying out a sensible plan for the American economy
Jun 9th 2011 | from the print edition
NEXT week a collection of largely unknown Republicans will hold the first proper TV debate of the 2012 presidential campaign. Whoever eventually wins their party’s nomination then has to take on Barack Obama, the giant of American politics. The president has a huge war-chest, his own party firmly behind him and a rare capacity to inspire. Yet he is vulnerable. This week a poll showed him in a dead heat with Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner. America’s sluggish recovery will give any challenger a chance. The question is whether any Republican has the personality and especially the ideas to take him on. For the best way to make this race competitive—and the best thing for America—is to force voters to confront the hard choices their country has to make.
This time, Mr President, you are playing Goliath
In terms of the horse race, an incumbent president (especially if he is without a primary challenger) usually has a head start. While the Republicans spend the next year clobbering each other, Mr Obama can appear statesmanlike and husband his resources. His approval rating is in the 50s, better than Bill Clinton’s at this stage in the proceedings in 1995, before he went on to score a solid victory against Bob Dole in 1996.
But whereas that Clinton race should encourage Mr Obama, the previous one should worry him. In spring 1991 George Bush senior was coasting towards re-election; by November 1992 the president was toast—and the main reason was a sluggish economy. This recovery, in the wake of the worst financial shock since 1929, is even slower. Growth in the first quarter was a feeble 1.8%. The unemployment rate actually rose, to 9.1%, in May: the rate of job creation is barely keeping track with the natural increase in the working-age population. Twice as many Americans think the country is on the wrong track as the right one. Many of the places where Americans feel angriest are battleground states: Florida, Michigan and Ohio all saw big Republican gains in the 2010 mid-terms.
In 2008 Mr Obama represented change. This time he will have to fend off charges that he is to blame for the achingly slow recovery by arguing that it would have been worse without his actions, such as his $800 billion stimulus package and the takeover of GM and Chrysler. That may be true but it is not easy to sell a counterfactual on the stump (as the first President Bush learned). And there are other holes in Mr Obama’s record. What happened to his promises to do something about the environment or immigration or Guantánamo? Why should any businessman support a chief executive who has let his friends in the labour movement run amok and who let his health-care bill be written by Democrats in Congress? Above all, why has he never produced a credible plan to tackle the budget deficit, currently close to 10% of GDP?
Asking these questions will surely give any Republican a perch in this race. But to beat the president, the Republicans need both a credible candidate and credible policies.
In terms of talent, the current line-up is not without hope (see article). Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty and Mr Romney have all been first-rate governors: they can claim the sort of hands-on experience of government that Mr Obama so signally lacked in 2008. Mr Romney could get it right this time (see Lexington); or the more charismatic Mr Huntsman could soar. All the same, there are other current and former governors who this newspaper wishes were in the race—notably Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels and Rick Perry. As for Sarah Palin, her antics are helping no one, other than Mr Obama; she should put up, or preferably shut up. Michele Bachmann, a right-wing congresswoman, can carry the tea-party banner.
Yes you can—if we can afford it
Talent is less of a problem than policies. A serious Republican candidate must come up with answers to the two big problems facing America’s economy: how to get more people back to work, and how to fix the deficit. The first requires a swathe of bold structural reforms to boost jobs and growth, the second a credible plan to balance the books in the medium term that does not wreck the economy in the short term.
When it comes to encouraging jobs, the Republican failure is largely one of inventiveness. They focus merely on tax cuts and slashing red tape. But what about a big new push to free up trade? Or an overhaul of the antiquated unemployment-insurance scheme and worker-training programmes that gets business more involved? Or serious immigration reform?
The Republican failure on the deficit is more serious. Mr Obama is deeply vulnerable here, not least because he is still trying to kid Americans that their fiscal future can be shored up merely by taxing the rich more. But the Republican solution of tax cuts and even deeper spending cuts (typified by Mr Pawlenty’s proposals this week) is arguably worse. Most of the burden of repairing America’s public finances should certainly fall on spending. But the deficit is simply too large to close through spending cuts alone. The overall tax take—at its lowest, as a share of GDP, in decades—must eventually rise.
An honest Republican candidate would acknowledge this and lay out the right way to do so—for instance, by eliminating distorting loopholes and thus allowing revenues to rise. He (or she) would also come up with a more systematic plan on the spending side. No Republican seems to understand the difference between good spending and bad. Investment in roads and education, for instance, ought not to be lumped in with costly and unreformed entitlements, like Social Security and Medicare. Defence should not be sacrosanct. That Mr Obama has no strategy either is not an excuse.
In most elections promising toughness is not a successful tactic; but this time Americans know that their country has huge problems and that their nation’s finances are the biggest problem of all. In Britain the Conservatives made the incumbent Gordon Brown seem ridiculous by spelling out the austerity that he at first barely dared mention; now another tough-talking centre-right party has won in Portugal (see article). If ever there was a time for pragmatic conservative realism, it is now. Mr Obama might also bear that in mind.