We live in a media culture where being a soothsayer is more profitable than it was in ancient Rome — and today's TV pundits do not have to mess with the entrails of animals. Small wonder that after the Democrats' staggering 63 seat loss in the House, the urge to offer a definitive judgment on Barack Obama's 2012 political fate is as irresistible as betting against another term for Julius Caesar.
But Tuesday's news — from Korea to Kokomo — illustrates how hard it is to know in advance which developments are transient and which will have lasting reverberations for the Obama presidency.
The sudden eruption of artillery fire across the Korean armistice line is inevitably fraught with risk for any president — Democrat or Republican — because America's options (beyond trying to bribe Pyongyang) are so limited in the face of a nuclear-armed North Korea. Or take The New York Times' revelation in a front-page exclusive that so far has provoked surprisingly little domestic political reaction that the Afghan government's ballyhooed peace talks with the Taliban involved negotiations with and payoffs to an impostor. The story's delicious details — including Taliban prisoners vouching for the authenticity of the con man — contribute to a narrative that might further undermine support for the Afghan War.
Of course, it is more likely that an air of uneasy calm will soon return to the Korean peninsula and the Afghan impostor story will be forgotten until it becomes the plot for a new Leonardo DiCaprio movie.
What instead may linger in the memory of the 2012 voters is the president's triumphant visit to a reborn Chrysler plant in Kokomo, Ind., a state that Obama carried by 26,000 votes last time around. Maybe the embattled president's Kokomo Comeback began when he exuberantly declared to the Chrysler workers, "So here's the lesson: Don't bet against America. Don't bet against the American auto industry. Don't bet against American ingenuity. Don't bet against the American worker." Left unspoken was Obama's real message: "Don't bet against me."
Of course, it is quite likely that Obama's new upbeat refrain will prove as politically irrelevant as the president's elaborate metaphor about handing the car keys to the Republicans after they drove the economy into a ditch. That trope — which clearly the president believed was the stuff of rhetorical greatness since he repeated it so often — did not appear to win the Democrats a single vote anywhere in Campaign 2010.
The point is not to make the ludicrous claim that the 2012 election will pivot around the events of Nov. 23, 2010, but rather that the powers and the responsibilities of a president are so vast that it is folly to try to predict the contours of the 2012 race for the White House. Maybe the international situation (North Korea, Iran, Andorra?) will undermine political confidence in Obama's leadership. Maybe a slow but steady reduction in the unemployment rate (the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that it will drop to 8.8 percent at the end of 2011) will allow Obama to run for re-election on the Reaganesque platform that "dawn has broken in America." The range of plausible possibilities is almost endless.
Since the 2010 election, the Democrats have been doing what they do best — arguing among themselves over whether the president should move to the populist left, the sensible center or simply recapture the inspirational voice of the 2008 campaign. The Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank, sponsored a post-election poll of Obama voters in battleground states who either skipped the congressional elections or voted Republican. Their conclusion: "To rebuild the Obama coalition, Democrats must work from the center out."
A new analysis by Democracy Corps — a liberal Democratic consortium headed by 1992 Bill Clinton strategist James Carville and pollster Stan Greenburg — reached the opposite conclusion: "Despite hopes for change, [voters] could not see anyone battling for the middle class and American jobs during this crisis." As Carville put it last week at a reporters' breakfast, "If there is anything that should be in the Democratic wheelhouse, it is a recession caused by a speculative bubble on Wall Street."
But maybe the more compelling question is: Why did the Obama White House never develop a long-term strategy for contesting the 2010 campaign? It was all short-term and tactical — the personification of former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel's darting attention span. A strong case can be made that anyone who believed that "Recovery Summer" was a clever campaign gimmick should be permanently barred from big-time politics. Didn't any White House political strategist wonder, "What if there isn't a recovery during the summer of 2010?"
Instead of left-right, the prism through which Americans often view their presidents is strong versus weak. There was nothing commanding about Obama in the recent campaign avoiding any protracted defense of health care reform, which — for better or worse — is destined to be the signature legislative achievement of his presidency. Strong leaders (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton for most of his presidency) do not cringe from defending their record. Of course, a fierce sense of one's own rectitude is not the only requirement for success in the Oval Office — judgment also comes into play as George W. Bush learned to his own distress.
While there remains something unknowable about Obama, I am intrigued by the notion that the president may have drawn the wrong political lessons from the 2008 campaign. After his breakthrough victories in Iowa and South Carolina, the battle against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination turned into a war of attrition in which unflappable patience became a virtue. The same steady-as-you-go calm served Obama well in the general election with the economy in free fall.
But mired in the Great Recession (or something that feels like it), Americans now demand something more from Obama than quiet self-assurance. It does not have to be a parody of Clinton's "I feel your pain." but Obama's reaction has to be more than simply cerebral. Managing that transformation in his political persona represents the biggest challenge that Barack Obama faces over the next two years.