Like a great many other writers, yesterday I noted the expectations that the killing Osama bin Laden sewed up the 2012 election for President Obama are, at best, premature. As proof, I cited, as did many others, the example of President George H. W. Bush who was assumed in 1991 to be unbeatable the following year because of America’s smashing victory in the first Persian Gulf War. But a poor economy, a Republican base demoralized by the president’s broken promise on tax cuts (“read my lips”), and the emergence of a viable third party bid by Ross Perot all combined to make the elder Bush a one-term president.
But while Obama loyalists shouldn’t book their second inaugural hotel rooms yet, Republicans shouldn’t rely on the 1992 precedent. On closer examination, the differences between that election and the one we will hold next year are far greater than the similarities.
The difference between the effect of the Gulf War victory on Bush and the bin Laden factor for Obama is that Bush, like most Republicans already had a solid reputation on security issues. By contrast, Obama, like most Democrats, has always been more vulnerable on the war and peace front. The killing of bin Laden, which will allow Obama’s supporters to portray him as a decisive and successful commander-in-chief, buttresses his presidency on an issue that was always a potential weak point. The death of bin Laden has the potential to be a greater boost for him than the Gulf War was for the first Bush.
It is true a stalled economy that generates higher unemployment numbers than the ones Obama inherited in January 2009 could doom his reelection bid. Skyrocketing gasoline prices could also spell trouble for him. If unrest in the Middle East sends the price to $5 per gallon or even higher, Obama is in big trouble. Bin Laden’s death won’t save him if the economy is in a downward spiral. But most pundits who are invoking the specter of 1992 to cheer up Obama critics or sober up his friends are forgetting the most decisive factors in that election: Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot.
Buchanan’s primary challenge to Bush gave a focus to Republican dissatisfaction with the president. It unsettled and demoralized the party base, and as has been the case in other elections where the incumbent faced a serious primary opponent, undermined Bush’s chances of winning the general election.
As damaging as Buchanan’s candidacy was to Bush, Perot’s third party movement with its focus on the rising deficit made mincemeat of the GOP’s 1988 electoral arithmetic. While some analysts claimed that Perot drew votes from Democrats as well as Republicans, there is little question that his entry in the race was the key element that elected Bill Clinton.
Barack Obama will be far luckier. As the first African-American president, Obama is inoculated against a serious primary challenge. No matter what happens in the year ahead, the odds are heavily against a Democrat of any stature or hopes of a political future stepping forward to run against him. As for the third party factor, while the crackpot left will probably have a candidate or two on the ballot in November 2012, this won’t affect the outcome in any way. Unlike Bill Clinton, Obama’s GOP opponent next year will have to beat the president by himself.
No election is won 19 months before the votes are counted. Obama’s reelection remains a hostage to fate. The ups and downs of the economy will have more to do with his reelection or defeat than the death of bin Laden. But his chances have clearly been strengthened by this event and it would be foolish for Republicans to believe that the example of 1992 provides much comfort for them.