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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Obama’s Santa wish list

US President Barack Obama.
By Patricio Navia
For the Herald
US president’s Christmas present: a weak challenger?

So far, US President Barack Obama’s stellar political career has benefitted from mistakes committed by others and his rise to the White House has been aided by fortunate combinations of events that have repeatedly made him the right person in the right place at the right time. In his Santa wish list, President Obama should probably ask for a Republican primary season dominated by the diehard conservative right that eventually results in the victory of a lukewarm former moderate Republican who was forced to make so many concessions to the party’s rightwing that he has rendered himself unelectable in November, 2012. Obama could get such a present. Though he might have to wait until after Epiphany (Día de Reyes in Argentina), he is likely to get such a valuable present.

In 2004, when he became Senator from Illinois, Obama’s first nationally famous victory resulted from a sexual scandal that forced the Republican candidate—and favourite to win the election—to resign three months before the election. Jack Ryan was forced to release divorce and child custody documents that backed his wife’s allegations that he forced her to attend swingers’ clubs and perform sexual acts in public. The release of those documents forced Ryan’s resignation three days later. Though Republican candidate Alan Keys —a contoversial African American leader and former presidential hopeful in the Republican primaries—entered the race, then Illinois State Senator Barack Obama cruised to an easy victory in November of 2004. Obama’s eloquent speech in the 2004 Democratic Convention also made him a national figure. When the junior Senator from Illinois entered the Democratic primaries in the winter of 2007, he was a promising up-and-coming figure in the Democratic Party.

Former first lady Hillary Clinton was the clear favourite to win the Democratic nomination for the 2008 election. However, her support for the Iraq War allowed Obama to rise as an alternative candidate. He made his opposition to the war the dominant message. When the war began, Hillary Clinton was in the US Senate and thus had to take a real stance on a presidential decision that was then popular in the United States. Obama was in the Illinois Senate. His opposition to the war did not really matter, as that body had no power to influence foreign affairs. As Americans showed their inclination to induce a generational change in national politics, Obama eventually defeated Hillary Clinton and clinched the Democratic nomination.

Outgoing President Bush’s declining approval rating gave Democrats a chance to recover the White House in 2008. The economic crisis that hit the US in the summer of 2008 made it even more difficult for the Republican candidate John McCain to compete with Obama. In November, 2008, Obama became the first African-American president and the youngest president since John F. Kennedy. Only four years after he made his début in national politics, Obama had already risen all the way up to the White House. He was certainly clever and well-prepared, but he also benefited from a fortunate sequence of events. His strengths were in high demand and the electorate chose to overlook his weaknesses as a candidate as he paved his way to the White House in 2008.

Four years later, the economic situation — with high unemployment and sluggish growth — should make reelection an uphill battle for Obama. A majority of Americans think he does not deserve a second term. His approval is falling near the lowest level of 38% reached in October, 2011. No president has won reelection with unemployment above 7.2%. Republicans have a very strong chance of unseating the first African-American president.

However, Obama’s good fortune might again come to the rescue. The Republican Party has failed to produce a strong enough candidate that can appease its conservative base and reach out to moderate voters. The campaign for the primaries, due to start in two weeks with the Iowa caucuses, has further divided the party. The vocal conservative base has blocked moderate candidates and now threatens to derail the campaign of Mitt Romney, the front-runner until a few weeks ago. Romney is the strongest Republican against Obama, but his main weakness is that he is seen as a flip-flopper with no strong convictions. As he needs to win the primaries to face Obama, Romney has inevitably adopted more conservative positions than those he championed as the governor of Massachusetts. That might help him win the nomination, but will also give Obama a powerful campaign weapon against him in the general election.

Obama’s past fortunes certainly aided his career. As he waits for his Christmas and Epiphany presents, Obama might very well get what he most wants, a weakened Republican presidential nominee who will not be able to capitalize on the sorry state of the American economy and will fail to convince Americans that they should actually punish their incumbent president. Despite his high disapproval, Obama might just win simply because the Republicans are handing him the best possible Christmas present: a weak challenger for the November 2012 election.

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