‘Forward’?

It was Satchel Paige who said, “Never look back. Someone might be gaining on you.”

Perhaps that is why “Forward” is the best campaign slogan the Obama campaign could come up with. They know that they have to look forward, because someone is gaining on them.

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The problem for Team Obama is that their first term hasn’t been very successful, especially on the economic front. The job numbers that came out last Friday must have sent a chill down David Axelrod’s spine. These are not the kind of numbers that get presidents reelected. 

The president is trying to reframe the famous question first asked by Ronald Reagan in his successful campaign against Jimmy Carter: Are you better off than you were four years ago? 

For Obama, the new question is, Will you be better off four years from now?

That is a difficult question to answer for the normal voter. We all hope we will be better off in the future, but none of us has any great faith that we can predict what will happen next week, let alone four years from now. 

What voters can do is analyze the past. And for most voters, the last four years have been rocky at best. And while the president scores high on the likability charts, his major initiatives, such as healthcare and the stimulus package, get failing grades.

Historically speaking, presidents get reelected either when the economy is expanding or when war is raging. They lose when the economy is faltering or when a war is winding down. George W. Bush won in the middle of the war on terror, while George H.W. Bush lost during a recession. Jimmy Carter lost thanks to a wrecked economy, while Reagan and Clinton won reelection during periods of rapid growth. 

When the American people think that they either are winning personally (thanks to economic growth) or must win collectively (in times of war), they tend to keep the incumbent.  But voters who are pessimistic about their own financial future or don’t feel personally threatened by war are much more likely to vote for a challenger. 

The president has tried to make a big deal about his authorization of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, and while we all appreciate the effort, there is absolutely no historical evidence that this will prove to move voters in any substantial way. Big foreign-policy triumphs (Camp David Accords, successful end of Cold War, etc.) have had no real bearing on any election in the last 40 years. 

The president’s team is going to try to make this election about Mitt Romney. They will gain inspiration from the Bush campaign of 2004, which successfully painted John Kerry as a weak, out-of-touch, flip-flopping politician. But that election wasn’t about John Kerry. It was about all about George Bush’s successful efforts to keep terrorists from carrying out another attack on American soil (that and an economy that expanded steadily with relatively low unemployment).

Presidential reelections are referendums by their very nature. 

Obama has three choices going into this election season. He can try to defend his economic record more vigorously, which will take some doing, given last week’s tough report. He can try to cut some pro-growth deals with Congress (like extending the Bush tax cuts for five more years), but given his general dislike of tax cuts, that doesn’t seem likely. Or he can pray that the economy starts adding a lot more jobs a lot more quickly in the next three months. 

Right now, prayer might be his only option. That, and a clever campaign slogan that would make Satchel Paige proud.

Feehery is president of Quinn 
Gillespie Communications and 
spent 15 years working in the 
House Republican leadership. He is 
a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at thefeeherytheory.com.