When I was growing up, I remember my father telling me he believed the best thing about America was that the right person always came along to provide the leadership the nation needed at the time it needed it.
Dad isn't a classic historian. He taught religion and philosophy at one of the local colleges (there were three) in my rather small hometown so, certainly, biblical history was part of his courses. And he did study history in general to a certain extent — and on certain sub–topics that were of interest to him — but he has never been the go–to guy to put things into historical perspective.
Nevertheless, I had to admit that he was right. America's had its share of incompetent leaders in the last two centuries, but, when the chips have really been down, usually someone steps forward — Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts — to keep the country from veering too far off the path.
Kind of smacks of predestination or manifest destiny, doesn't it? Well, maybe it is a variation on the theme of American exceptionalism, but I think that, given our history, Americans have earned the right to see themselves as exceptional.
You can always find scabs to pick at in American history. This nation isn't perfect. It is a work in progress. We acknowledged that from the beginning, yet we asserted our exceptionalism, in the preamble to the Constitution, when we spoke of seeking to be a more perfect Union.
(Barack Obama used this phrase himself in a speech during the 2008 campaign. You may remember it. It was given amid the controversy brought on by Rev. Jeremiah Wright's infamous "God damn America" remarks.)
It is a nation that was founded on faith. Even if a person has no real religious faith, most Americans do have faith in their country and the concept of limitless opportunity here. We have tried — not always successfully but we have tried — to change those things about ourselves that are contrary to our lofty self–image.
That faith has been severely challenged in the last four or five years by an economic crisis unlike any since the Great Depression. For a president who was elected on the strength of voters' belief in hope and change, it can be staggering when you talk to those who have completely given up hope during his tenure.
Their ranks are likely to swell, I am afraid, with today's jobs report. The economy did add 163,000 jobs in July, and the average monthly jobs gain in 2012 has been 151,000, which is adequate to keep up with population growth, observes Christopher Rugaber of the Associated Press, but it isn't enough to bring unemployment down.
And that was really Obama's mission when he was elected. He made a lot of other promises to a lot of other groups, but the economy and joblessness were the two dark clouds that hung over the Republican–held White House and truly made it possible for a black man with limited political experience to be elected president by an electoral vote landslide.
Until that implosion, the race was neck and neck. Many Democrats openly wondered if Obama had made a mistake in picking Joe Biden as his running mate. Hillary Clinton would have united the party, many said.
The economy's implosion was a very recent development when voters went to the polls in November 2008. It certainly wasn't the reason that either Obama or John McCain got into the race to begin with, but righting the economic ship had become the #1 concern that September.
That hasn't happened, and a recent Gallup poll shows voters want the next president to make the economy and job creation his top — if not sole — priority.
Indeed,through most of Obama's presidency, poll after poll has indicated that it is still voters' top concern. But good news from the Labor Department has been rare. In fact, the unemployment rate went up — to 8.3% — in today's report.
Which puts the president in a position — historically — that makes his re–election prospects seem weaker each day.
With about three months left before the election, Barack Obama faces some pretty steep historical mountains to climb — and not much time to conquer them.
The most ominous is the fact that, when the unemployment rate has been 7% or higher on Election Day, practically no incumbent presidents have won. Ronald Reagan, in 1984, was an exception, but Reagan had a steadily improving economy working in his favor. Obama doesn't have that.
Conventional wisdom also holds that, if a president's approval ratings are below 50% on Election Day, that president is toast. This president, who entered office with three of every five Americans approving (when, technically, there was nothing to approve), hasn't received the consistent approval of a majority of respondents in more than a year.
Recent polls show Obama's approval in the 40s, and today's jobs report isn't likely to help.
Another rule of thumb is that right track/wrong track question that pollsters ask. Essentially, voters are asked if they think the country is on the right track or the wrong track. When the majority say the wrong track, that isn't a good sign for the incumbent.
The latest poll results I have seen on that question were reported by Rasmussen Reports. Only 29% of respondents said the country was heading in the right direction.
(The good news in that for Obama is that the number is up from this time last year, when only 14% believed the country was going in the right direction.)
Rasmussen's figure is a little lower than the others I have seen, which are typically in the 30–36% range, but even the most positive of them has no good news for the administration.
The other truism of American politics has to do with personal income. People vote their wallets. I have always believed it is the reason why Reagan's question at the end of his debate with Jimmy Carter — "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" — resonated the way it did.
Personal income is a little harder to boil down into easily digestible numbers, like the unemployment rate, presidential job approval and right track/wrong track, but the Commerce Department reported recently that personal income was up modestly in June. A troubling side note was the decline in personal spending; in a consumer–based economy, that is definitely not a good sign.
Those four historical factors — frequently cited by historians, pollsters and political scientists as the most reliable predictors of an election's outcome — are all working against the incumbent.
And it doesn't seem likely to me that he can reverse those trends in three months.
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