Seven reasons why the GOP faces an uphill battle to defeat Obama

President Obama’s chances of winning a second term have significantly improved over the past couple of months.

The election is a long way off, but the strategy sessions for Obama’s reelection are already under way. Some of the president’s senior aides, including David Axelrod, will soon be leaving Washington for Chicago to focus on one thing: making Obama a two-term president.

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Obama’s poll numbers have been on the rise since Republicans won 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate last November. Perhaps more importantly, Obama’s moves to distance himself from the liberal wing of his party come as 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls are moving to the right in what is sure to be a bruising primary.

Intrade.com, a prediction/betting market, puts the chances of the Democrats retaining the White House at 62 percent.

Republicans in the nation’s capital are confident they can retain the House next year, and believe they have a better than 50-50 shot of capturing control of the Senate – especially in the wake of the retirement announcements of Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).

But optimism about defeating Obama is not nearly as high.

The conservative-leaning National Review magazine this month ran an article titled, “Obama – Evicting the president in 2012 will not be easy.”

The following are seven reasons why Republicans face an uphill battle to win back the White House in 2012.

Incumbents are tough to beat. Presidential incumbents have inherent advantages, winning three of the last contests. Presidents Reagan and Clinton were politically damaged by the midterm elections in their first terms, but two years later, both cruised to victory. Obama called the Nov. 2, 2010, election a “shellacking,” changed his governing approach and Congress had one of the most productive lame-duck sessions in recent memory.

Obama’s move to the center. During the lame-duck, 2012 GOP hopefuls broke with Republican congressional leaders on the tax cut deal they brokered with Obama. That trend will continue this year. Generally speaking, compromises with the president don’t play well with the base. But House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) both have strong political incentives to work with the White House on a range of issues, including trade, education and perhaps energy.

As Republican candidates woo conservatives in Iowa and New Hampshire, Obama will try to burnish his standing with the independents who backed him in 2008 and then voted for Republican congressional candidates last year.

The danger for Obama, according to Dartmouth College professor Linda Fowler, is moving too far from his base and risking a primary challenge that would fracture the party. Still, there doesn’t seem to be a high-profile liberal poised to take on the president.

“It’s sure hard to see who that would be,” Fowler said.

The economy is showing signs of life. Improvements in the economy always help boost the party in power. So if the nation’s unemployment rate continues to drop, that will help the president and protect Boehner’s new majority in the House.

Jack Quinn of Quinn Gillespie & Associates, who served as counsel to President Clinton, said Obama “must be almost single-mindedly focused on growing the ranks of the employed and generating a sense the economy is headed in the right direction.”

If the ailing economy continues to sputter, the fourth consecutive election wave could be in the offing.

In the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan damaged then-President Jimmy Carter with the simple question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” In the fall of 2012, the Republican presidential nominee may be recycling that question.

Presidential elections are usually more about personality than policies. Voters like to like their president. George W. Bush was deemed more likeable than Vice President Al Gore in 2000. Four years later, Democrats enjoyed advantages over Bush on key policy issues, but Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) didn’t connect with voters as much as Bush did.

Obama’s personality was key to his stunning win over Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary and later to his triumph over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Throughout the latter half of 2009 and last year, polls showed that the public was skeptical of Obama’s policies. But independents didn’t turn on Obama personally as they did against Bush in 2006.

Obama’s speech in Arizona about the assassination attempt of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) that left six dead was hailed by Democrats and some Republicans as one of his best as commander-in-chief. In contrast, Sarah Palin’s address earlier that day was overshadowed by her “blood libel” remark and quickly attracted criticism.

Furthermore, each potential candidate on the Republican side has weaknesses that Democrats believe they can exploit.

Quinn said “there simply is no compelling political figure – at least so far – on the Republican side.” He cautioned that surprises in American politics are common, pointing out Obama’s win two years ago.

Democrats still have fresh memories of Bush.
Liberal Democrats were furious with Obama’s deal with the GOP on tax cuts in the lame-duck session. Those intraparty tensions will flare in 2011 as Obama seeks to curb federal spending and move long-stalled trade deals. But 2012 will likely be a different story as Democrats focus on the their real political opponent – the Republican presidential candidate.

In 2009, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Bush’s exit from Washington felt like “a 10-ton anvil” lifting from her shoulders. Obama will irritate Pelosi and other Democrats on Capitol Hill in the 112th Congress, but they will coalesce behind him next year.

RNC debt. The Republican National Committee is $20 million in debt and has to reestablish its reputation with donors after many of them put away their checkbooks during Michael Steele’s controversial term. The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, has $15.5 million in debt. While some Obama donors are upset with his move to the center, the president’s fundraising skills are a significant asset. The news here for Republicans, however, could easily turn. Outside GOP-allied groups, such as American Crossroads, tapped into anti-Obama fervor in 2010 and will undoubtedly be a force in this cycle as well.

People like divided government. In recent years, both Democrats and Republicans have overreached when controlling the executive and legislative branches. In 2006, Democrats called for a check and balance on Bush and won control of Congress. Republicans followed the same playbook in 2010 on Obama and it worked.

In 2012, Republicans will have to come up with a new game plan because they have a comfortable majority in the House and have a good shot at winning the Senate. Polls indicate that voters are still wary of the GOP and Republican lawmakers acknowledge they have a lot of work to do before they regain voters’ trust.