Peter Beinart today says Barack Obama will win in 2012. Forget the fact that in the very same piece he reveals his utter confidence that John Kerry was going to win in 2004, and focus instead on this passage: “Unlike 2004, it’s not likely to offer much suspense. Barack Obama will almost certainly win because, well, incumbents usually win.”
Ah. Well, yes, it’s true; three of the five presidents who preceded Obama did win reelection. But two didn’t. And while two out of five is, statistically, 40 percent, I’m sure it doesn’t feel like 40 percent to Barack Obama. That’s why he’s gotten a quick jump on 2012—both to raise a historic amount of money and to try to muscle out any possible primary challenges.
A week, they used to say, is a lifetime in politics. The next 18 months before the 2012 elections are not a lifetime; they are akin to a millennium. The world is generating news at an unprecedented clip, and there’s no way of telling what’s next. Remember that the conflagration in the Arab world wasn’t even a blip on the radar screen in December, or that an earthquake-tsunami-radiation disaster in Japan was the farthest thing from anybody’s mind when the nation stopped for a few days in the wake of the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in January. No one had then heard of Scott Walker, even though he had won the governorship of Wisconsin.
In the next few months we could be seeing an inflation surge from oil and food prices; an Israel-Hamas war; a major shift in American public opinion on Afghanistan as a weird blowback effect from our involvement in Libya; continuing political unrest in state capitals in the United States; and Charlie Sheen returning to “Two and a Half Men.” And this is just what is conceivably foreseeable. To be certain of a 2012 outcome in any direction, given the nature of the change going on outside the United States and the degree of worry and fear and anger inside the United States is delusional.
American politics, like the news, has entered into a period of great instability, with ideological waves crashing into each other every two years. Independents are sloshing about in the undertow, and seem to be carried along in the political tide. Explaining the causes of these waves is simple: In 2006 and 2008, Iraq; in 2010, liberal overreach on health care and spending. But the fact that they happen so readily makes the act of predicting anything about American politics in the next two years all but impossible.