Image: Barack Obama
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
Politics and life often have other plans. Could President Obama — seen here speaking at the end of the G8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy — be on the outside, looking in, after the election of 2012?
COMMENTARY

President Barack Obama has done truly amazing things in his short time on the national political stage. Given not just his audacious policy agenda, but his place in American history and the almost comatose GOP brand, it is easy to assume that Barack Obama will coast to a second term in 40 short months. But politics and life often have other plans.

Could Obama be a one-term president?

This much is clear: we’re officially out of the honeymoon and into the slog stage. His once-impenetrable poll numbers have taken a hit. Independents are reportedly moving away from him. The stimulus package has come under serious fire, and he has to find a way to come up with $5 trillion. Over the next few months, Obama is going to become a singles and doubles hitter—the home runs will be hard to come by.

Now, my money is still on 44 in 2012. I think he’ll come out of the slog wiser, and the lessons learned over his first year in office will prepare his administration to start swinging for the fences again—on gay rights and immigration, for example—in 2010 and 2011. But they’ll have to cover their backs, too. We’ve seen sure-things fall before: Churchill, George H.W. Bush, and Karl Rove all seemed destined to stay on top at one point. Here are five scenarios that Obama should be wary of, any one of which could put his reelection campaign in jeopardy:

The economy remains stagnant and stale
It’s still about the economy, stupid. If the administration’s repeated recovery efforts fail, Obama will face a real challenge in 2012. I’m not just talking about unemployment—even if those numbers come down, Americans could still be contending with a host of financial viruses: foreclosures, ruined credit, enormous debt burdens, huge energy bills, and intrusive inflation. Add those to an uptick in gas prices and resentment over delayed retirement, and the President could end up the scapegoat.

Foreign policy nightmares
Just as quickly as Richard Phillips was safely rescued from a pirate ship a few months ago, a Video: Obama — too much to do? couple of bad turns (a missed shot in a hostage situation, for example) could quickly dim Obama’s foreign policy luster. Even if he is not directly blamed, he would become the poster boy—not just among conservatives, but many independents, too—for the pitfalls of cooperation. If you doubt that, ask a former general who became Israeli PM (Ehud Barak) how quickly a few high-profile bombings can undercut your image and allow discredited conservatives to swoop back into office. Or ask Jimmy Carter, a former naval officer who struggled with an Iranian hostage crisis.

China becomes a bully
This week, my MSNBC colleague Joe Scarborough went out of his way in my mind to point out how seemingly disrespectful Russian PM Vladimir Putin’s body language was towards President Obama. But more than Russian disrespect or the obvious risk of Islamic terrorist bombings, President Obama could be weakened politically at home if an emerging China went out of its way to try to push him around. For example, China could publicly make the U.S. President change his budget in order to maintain Chinese subsidies of U.S. debt—China holds $1 trillion, making items like the stimulus package and the car company bailouts even a possibility. China could also change its tone on touchy subjects in South America (Venezuela, for example), Africa (Sudan) and Asia (North Korea), going from “quietly” uncooperative to outspokenly hostile.



Health care fails
If the Democrats don’t get a meaningful health care bill passed that creates an attractive universal health care system, it could turn down the enthusiasm of many in the party. Progressives could stay home in 2012, the same way that many hard-core conservatives failed to mobilize behind John McCain, a candidate they saw as lackluster. A meaningful drop in enthusiasm could cost Obama nearly a 100 electoral votes—North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Indiana and Ohio.

Complacency
Right now, 2012 seems so far off—and the chances of losing seem so low. But history is filled with champs who didn’t take their next match that seriously. They didn’t hire the best people, double down on money and organization or ruthlessly squeeze all of the political oxygen into their lungs before their challengers grew competitive. Bill Clinton did it in 1996, starting his re-election campaign in early 1995. Hillary Clinton did not against Barack Obama in Iowa last year. While it does not happen very often, even a popular incumbent can lose to an even more popular challenger, especially if he or she is overly bogged down in governing or less than competent in effective re-election campaign planning.

Like I said, I wouldn’t bet on Obama losing. But in politics, and in life, sometimes the best way to understand the future and make decisions about the present is to consider the complete spectrum of possible outcomes—not just the ones you want. The prevent defense won’t get you there. But acknowledging how you could fall will almost certainly help you stay on top.

Learn more about MSNBC anchor Carlos Watson.

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