Thursday, April 28, 2011

Historical Resonance, Barack Obama And The Coming Election

The Election Season approaches, and with it the inevitable speculation - can Barack Obama win a second term?

A lot of data and numbers are being spun in various quarters, and which way it gets tossed is usually dependent on whether the writer's reaction to the possibility of four more years with the current occupant of the White House is "Hosanna, Messiah!" or a desperate urge to vomit.

For fun with numbers and data, I recommend Nate Silver's blog over at Pravda-on-the-Hudson for those of you who think Barack Obama is the Second Coming and Jay Cost's over at the Weekly Standard for those of you who would be happy to see him dragged out of the Oval Office kicking and screaming like a five-year-old in full tantrum mode.

What you're going to get here is a look at things from the very different standpoint of psycho-history, and I guarantee you it won't be boring.

I have long been convinced about the applicability of what I refer to as historical resonance. Simply put, that means that events don't happen in a vacuum, but are dependent on events and trends that reflect urges and needs in society at large.

That particularly applies to elections as far as I'm concerned, and leaders emerge and are chosen because they reflect something the electorate feels a psychological need for at a given time and wants to see mirrored in its leaders.

Let's examine a few elections and see how this works.

Richard Nixon's 1972 landslide over George McGovern came in the midst of the counter culture wars in American society. Most Americans who were not alive during the late 1960's and early 1970's have no idea how divided, violent and estranged the country was during that time. What most mainstream Americans wanted psychologically was a steady, moderate and competent hand in Washington as an antidote to the extremism they saw all around them.

George McGovern practically embodied that extremism. The Democrats narrowly lost the 1968 election, largely because the party's Left, led by Senator Eugene McCarthy sabotaged Vice President Hubert Humphrey's campaign on ideological grounds and out of revenge for the violence at the Chicago Convention. In order to avoid another schism, the Democrats revamped their convention rules in 1972 to essentially disenfranchise more conservative Democrats and enfranchise the Left, which ws a huge mistake. When people watched the 1972 Democrat convention on television, they saw exactly the kind of Leftist extremism they wanted to avoid like the plague.

McGovern's waffling when his vice presidential choice was shown to have received shock treatment for mental illness and his stumbling on issues like energy, Israel, and other foreign policy questions reinforced McGovern's image as not only radical but incompetent.

In the end, it's hardly surprising that Nixon, who had just carried of detente with Russia and China and was seen as a steady, non-radical hand beat McGovern by over 18 million votes and carried everything but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

In 1976, American voters chose a relatively inexperienced and unknown southern governor named Jimmy Carter with a very mixed record over the experienced and well-known incumbent Gerald Ford who had done a reasonably decent job of bringing the country through Watergate and healing what pundits of the time referred to as 'our long national nightmare.'

What people wanted psychologically, quite simply, was for someone to make that nightmare be fully over, which meant jettisoning anyone even remotely connected with it. Not only had Gerald Ford served as Nixon's vice-president, but he had pardoned him, something that in retrospect was the right and proper thing to do but at the time, given the ginned up media frenzy over Watergate, meant that the Democrats could have run pretty much anyone and taken the White House. The plain spoken, seemingly decent and uncomplicated Carter represented exactly what the American people wanted psychologically at that point in time, the antithesis of Nixon, who was seen as devious and complicated.

Four years later of course, it was Jimmy Carter who was seen as destructive, clueless, morose, elitist and dismissive of his countrymen, something that peaked with his famous 'malaise' speech to the country. Americans sorely wanted to believe in the greatness of their country again, and Reagan's sunny optimism, common sense and campaign message of 'Morning in America' couldn't have been better timed.

Reagan had been labeled as an extremist by the media and even many establishment Republicans, and was not given much chance to win. However, the psychological ethos of the electorate found both the candidate and the message that mirrored what resonated with them, and Reagan won decisively.

Fritz Mondale, who was essentially Jimmy Carter sans southern drawl fared much worse than Carter did against Reagan in 1984, even with the country still coming out of a recession.

Sometimes, there are mixed signals, when different parts of the electorate respond to different psychological triggers.

In 2000, for instance, approximately half of the country wanted a continuation of the Clinton years and saw it mirrored in the persona of Vice President Al Gore, the closest thing to Bill Clinton out of the Democrats who ran. The other half saw President Clinton as a man who had raised taxes, accomplished little and disgraced the presidency with his personal conduct and wanted someone in the White House with what they saw as a strong personal morality and character who would lower taxes and head off what was seen as a looming recession characterized by the bust. It is no accident that George W. Bush and Karl Rove picked up on that and shaped Bush's campaign around the theme of him 'bringing dignity back into the White House.'

Unfortunately, President Bush ended up faced with an unexpected situation a mere nine months after he was elected that he dealt with in ways that saw him increasingly out of sync with the electorate's psyche, which had undergone a profound change after 9/11.

Bush's re-election win over John Kerry occurred because Kerry was a candidate even more out of touch with the signals resonating from the electorate than the president, and things went quickly down hill after that until the 2008 election, by which time George W. Bush's unpopularity was at historic levels.

Like Jimmy Carter before him, Barack Obama had the advantage of running against the record of a deeply unpopular incumbent and against a candidate in John McCain who not only virtually embodied the Old Order but was heartily disliked by much of his own party.

Obama's campaign themes of hope and change, ending what most Americans saw as unending wars and the promise of a new, transparent way of doing things in Washington were exactly what the electorate was yearning for, especially in the novelty persona of the first black American to run for president on a major party ticket. Obama and his handlers evidenced almost an instinctive grasp of how to create a public image that played on those yearnings, turning Obama's scanty public record into an asset by painting that persona in vague enough strokes so that the electorate could project on it pretty much whatever they wanted to see.

And that persona, aided and abetted by a sycophantic media was designed to appeal to what the electorate wanted by being everything the Bush Administration was not - so Obama was sold as well spoken while Bush was considered a dullard, hip and cool in areas where the Old Order was stodgy and old fashioned, open where Bush was secretive, emotional where Bush was soft spoken and methodical.

As a campaign, it was successful. Could Barack Obama do it again?

To answer that question, we have to ask ourselves:is the resonance the same? Is the electorate looking for its leader to mirror the same things now it was then? And if not, how has it changed?

In 2008, the electorate was mainly concerned with change from what it perceived as the shortcomings of a deeply unpopular incumbent.In many ways,Barack Obama has now become that unpopular incumbent.

Ironically, in large part that's because as in 2008, the electorate is desperately seeking someone who can transcend business as usual in Washington and Obama has shown that he is not that person.Under his administration, there has been less transparency and more cronyism than in any administration in recent memory.

The key word for 2012 is going to be 'competency' and acumen as the US struggles with a deepening recession and major foreign policy challenges.While a certain percentage of the electorate might believe that the current economic turmoil is 'Bush's fault', that is likely to be of little help to Obama in 2012 because he was elected to solve the problems the electorate perceived as being caused by President Bush, and he's simply failed.

President Obama has a record to run on at this point, and it is no longer going to be possible for him to run on the hope of future benefit as it was in 2010. Again, for a certain portion of the electorate, that won't matter, but Obama's record has caused him to lose the swing votes and independents where elections are decided.

In fact, I would guess his actual approval ratings are even less than recorded, with a differential of between 5% and 10%. I extrapolate this from the fact that most major polling outfits oversample Democrats and the reluctance of people to openly criticize the first black president, even to a pollster over the telephone.

Speaking of race, another powerful weapon Obama enjoyed in 2008 whose effect will be sharply reduced for him in 2012 was the novelty effect of being the first black presidential candidate on a major party ticket. Jewish grandmothers in Los Angeles and white suburbanites in Cleveland and Philadelphia have already bought and paid for their discount post-racial bonifides by voting for Obama in 2008. The president's sharply lowered approval ratings among white voters are an indication that many of them are going to base their votes on very different criteria this time out.

Another way the resonance has changed has to do with what I call the empathy factor. This wasn't that important in 2008, but it is extremely important now. Rightly or wrongly, the president is perceived in many quarters as elitist, out of touch and removed from the concerns of average people. His recent remark to a man struggling with high gas prices that he might consider a trade in is a superb example. It was almost as though Marie Antoinette had blown back through the centuries saying 'What, the people can't afford gas for their SUV's and mini-vans? Well, let 'em buy Priuses and GM Volts!'

I see the electorate looking to see empathy from a president at this point,or at least the assurance that the man in the White House understands them and cares about what happens to them in their everyday lives. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan's presidencies were both successful because even with the economic turmoil that existed, the American people felt like they had a leader who was one of them, who felt for them, who reflected their values and was at least trying to make things better.

They are not getting it from President Obama,and in fact his recent beating of the class warfare drum may actually be making things worse. It appeals to the president's base, but it alienates the millions of Americans who work in small business or corporations and understand that a country hostile to business cannot survive.They're seeing it close up in their home states and cities, many of whom are juggling bankruptcy after years of Democrat rule, and they're seeing it reflected in the supermarket and at the gas pump.The symbolism of the president's gesture in giving $2 billion of the American taxpayer's dollars to Brazil to aid them in their offshore oil drilling while enacting a ban on offshore drilling here in America is not lost on them.

So can Barack Obama be re-elected? Much depends on whom he runs against.

I personally don't see the economic climate getting markedly better by 2012, but I think that's only part of the equation.

If the Republicans nominate someone who mirrors the electorate's need for competency,acumen,and a major change in how Washington does business and if that candidate is able to show effectively that he or she reflects their values, has empathy for them, and communicates optimism that America's best days are ahead of it, I see President Obama being soundly defeated.

On the other hand, if the GOP run an establishment candidate who shrieks business as usual in his demeanor and persona, it will be a much tighter race and the president might very well pull out a second term.

The historical resonance and how the candidates respond to it is going to determine the results of the 2012 election. Depend on it.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i disagree with ff on a fundamental premise in this essay.
throughout the elections mentioned, ff, the foremost optimist, discusses the elections as the electorate are a constant. the resonance he speaks of changes from election to election, but the electorate changes as well.
those who elected ronald reagan were at the end of the WWII generation.
those voting today are in a malaise alright. their malaise is that they have seen the soviet union fail, and feel it needs another chance right here in the US.
the difference between myself and ff is that i feel americans have given up. how else would hussein have the numbers he does today?
they wouldn't know leadership if it hit them in the face.
one other thing, in the 1972 race, there was a media that called out the deficency in mcgovern's positions.
in 2012, the media will again have one of their own in the race. they are going to deliver a republican candidate to the electorate, so limp wristed, that it will make john mccain's campaign look like a juggernaught. the media will all have book deals riding on this election. neither nixon nor reagan had to deal with that.

Louie Louie