They say speculation is just that until the day that it becomes true. To be clear, the following is just speculation. However, it is not speculation grounded in rumors and gossip, but on the public political behavior of the day and, based on present circumstances and historical precedent, how it will affect the politics of tomorrow.
What we are talking about is the prospect of President Obama facing a primary challenge in his 2012 reelection bid. And the most likely Democrat to mount such a challenge is thought to be his own Secretary of State and former primary opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“Our nation has to be fiscally strong at home in order to be strong abroad,” Secretary Clinton recently quipped on CBS’s 60 Minutes, leading many to question whether there was a slight wrinkle in the seemingly-cordial Obama-Clinton relationship. Even Clinton defenders and partisan Democrats (against whose interest such a primary would be) have suggested that the Secretary could have, perhaps, chosen her words a little better in that particular interview. With that statement, she did seem to undermine Obama’s leadership with regard to his handling of both America’s national economy and the nation’s place in the world.
A primary challenge to Obama, on its face, would be a tremendous blow to the Democratic Party – especially if the Republicans were to unite behind their candidate early in the race. It would be 2008 all over again, except this time it would be the incumbent party dividing against itself, instead of the party out of power.
The last time such an occurrence happened was when President Jimmy Carter had to fend off the late Senator Ted Kennedy and then-California Governor (and current candidate for the job) Jerry Brown in his 1980 reelection bid for the presidency. That division amongst Democrats, in addition to the deteriorating economy and hostage crisis in Iran among other things, practically paved the way for Republican Ronald Reagan’s electoral victory in November of that year.
Since his election, Obama has been likened to President Carter in many ways. He is widely viewed as the most liberal person to hold the presidency since Carter’s humiliating defeat by the symbol of modern conservatism, Reagan. The dismal economy also plays into these similarities, as does Obama’s seemingly naïve view toward dealing with hostile foreign leaders. The fact that his job approval ratings seem to be going nowhere but down also support the notion that he is becoming more and more vulnerable by the day.
Politicians may scoff at poll numbers when they don’t come out their way, but ever since Gallup began conducting job approval surveys on presidents during the second Roosevelt administration, the numbers have largely reflected the general public’s perception of the respective officeholder. For instance, if President George W. Bush had been up for reelection in 2008, when his numbers were stuck in the low 30’s and even in the 20’s, he would have very likely endured a challenge from a member of his own party. (Heck, it probably would have been John McCain). When President Lyndon Johnson saw the writing of his political obituary on the wall in 1968, he declined to even run for reelection, because he was already facing divisions within his own party as a result.
Obama, whose job approval stands in the mid 40’s at the present time, desperately needs a boost in order to avoid these pitfalls. A devastating defeat for his party this November would only keep his numbers down. Although he would immediately resort to blaming Republicans for the nation’s problems as soon as they took power in Congress, the majority of the public (including many Democrats) would simply not buy it.
Secretary Clinton will have a lot of deciding to do in the next sixth months. The results of the midterm election this year will undoubtedly play the most significant role in her deciding whether she wants to challenge her current boss. Of course, she would have to resign from his administration to mount this challenge, but such a move might greatly help her in the eyes of many Democrats who have grown weary of Obama’s leadership, but, at the same time, could never bring themselves to vote for a Republican.
While the undoing of Obama may be something that partisan Republicans pray for, a campaign against Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee is nothing they should write off as a campaign won. Remember, the Clintons are naturally well-organized politicians. They would not have been able to win the presidency twice, as well as both the governorship in Arkansas and a U.S. Senate seat in New York if they were not skilled in this arena.
Because of that reputation, some like former Clinton adviser Dick Morris, believe that Secretary Clinton made that statement on 60 Minutes on purpose and was, thus, a calculating move on her part. Perhaps it was a warning to Obama that she’ll play nice, so long as he remains a strong president. With this in mind, any Republican candidate would undoubtedly have his (or her) work cut out for them if they ended up running against the seasoned Clinton political machine in 2012.
At the moment, President Obama’s approval ratings are not great, but they are still strong enough to keep the bulk of his party behind him for the time being. However, with ongoing crises like the escalating oil spill in the Gulf Coast and the ever-growing possibility of another terrorist attack within our borders, there’s always the chance that his numbers will go south soon. And of course, there is the underlying problem of the economy, which has led to the sinking of more than one commander-in-chief in the past. It’s simple: if people don’t work, they’re going to blame the guy in charge – especially when he promised to put them to work, if elected.
A challenge by Clinton would be serious unlike, say, a challenge from a Democratic member of Congress (like Kennedy against Carter in 1980), considering she is currently a member of the Presidential Cabinet. Her resignation from this position would say a lot about Obama’s personal leadership and how it was viewed by those closest to him. She would also have a better license to criticize him on the issues than she did in 2008, when they were mere political opponents bickering about hypothetical scenarios. This time she would have real policies to point to and real credibility (in being a former Cabinet member) to back up her assertions.
Although a primary challenge by Hillary Clinton may seem improbable to many at this point, it is certainly not impossible. After all, it was only two years ago, that then-Senator Clinton was warning America that her junior colleague Obama was unfit to lead the nation. Even if they don’t ever plan to vote for her, Republicans will have to admit that, based on that statement alone, Hillary is not always wrong.