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Will Obama return as prez?

As Obama’s popularity rises steadily and economy improves, the incumbent can pack a punch in Nov elections. Yashwant Raj reports. Obama's unbeatable poll machine

world Updated: Feb 19, 2012 08:40 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times

The room seemed barely big enough for 15 or 20 people, but it easily took in more than twice. Downstairs, a very harassed Lisa Neuder raced around helping visitors find parking slots where none existed. Upstairs, Matt Niesenoff led guests into impossibly tight seating arrangements with a look that begged understanding.

After a round of introductions the guests — teachers, retirees, a student and some private sector executives — settled into their seats arranged around a wall-mounted television set, tuned to MSNBC, cable news of choice for America's liberals.

“Ladies and gentleman,” cried out the house herald, “President of the United states of America.” As the doors parted, letting through Barack Obama a hush fell upon the party, taking place in an upscale condominium in Rockville, Maryland. It were as if the president was in the room, and not miles away in US congress, about to deliver his third State of the Union address, which would set out his administration's governance agenda for the year. More importantly — for those in the room, rank and file Democrats — was the political message of Re-election 2012.

Niesenoff, one of the hosts of the evening, was elated by the evening's turnout. Not many come for such events, and those that do hardly stay longer than necessary.

The Democrats believe they are seeing the tide turn, hope is giving way to despondency. Dana Milibank, a Washington Post columnist, noted recently Obama suddenly seems happier than he has in months. At a White House event for budding scientists he played around with their inventions — trying a gun that shoots marshmallows, for instance. He generally looked like he was enjoying himself, a study in contrast from knotted eyebrows.

Starting November 2010 mid-term congressional elections, Democrats had looked beaten — having conceded the of Representatives to Republicans and set to concede the White House in the fall of 2012.

Many of them believed Republicans would true to their word send Obama home to Chicago as a one-term president, a not so uncommon fate for incumbents — Jimmy Carter and George H Bush in recent memory.

From 66% approval rating in the first week in office in January 2009, Obama's popularity has dipped consistently, barring a temporary bump after the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, according to Gallup numbers. It went down to 40% in August 2011.

Republicans could sense their goal was more reachable than ever before, and the race for party's presidential nomination picked up heat — Texas governor Rick Perry made a late, but a glittering entry, going straight to the top with his I-will-fire-Ben Bernanke (the Federal Reserve chairman) bluster.

His swagger set Republicans on fire. Each candidate gunned for Obama, to raucous approval from the party base.

Obama's prospects looked doomed. The economy continued to be sluggish, and there were takers for his claims that his administration had done, but was helpless in the face of worldwide recession, worsened by tsunami in Japan. Job numbers that once looked curling up tantalisingly, plateaued and dipped, obstinately staying above 9% for a long time for a president seeking re-election.

“I think he made a mess of the political equity he come into office with by expending it totally on health care reform,” said Chris Oakley, a software professional and a Democrat by family tradition. He admitted to feeling a sense of being trapped in his political choices.

“I have no option but to vote for Obama,” he said. Ditto for his interior designer wife. Both Democrats, both Obama supporters in 2008 and both disappointed Democrats and reluctant Obama backers four years later in 2012.

Though the economy, blamed for much of Obama's poor approval ratings, remains sluggish, recent numbers have been good. His Gallup ratings are up to 45%; 50% in a polls conducted for The New York Times and CBS.

Joblessness fell to 8.3%, where it was in his first week in office in January 2009. But White House officials have warned that this number could slip back before climbing again. In short, wait for the economy to stabilise.

But the mood is improving. And analysts wonder if the Republican presidential hopefuls need to rescript their campaign narrative to factor in the optimism. The central theme of their campaign is the economy, with a charge against the president that he didn't do enough.

That, in fact, he squandered taxpayers hard-earned money bailing out big auto companies and Wall Street giants that had caused the recession.

In simulated head-to-head play-offs, each of them — Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul — trails Obama by a gap larger than statistical margin of error can cover. And if the economy does continue to improve as it has lately, the bounce in Obama's fortunes could put him out of reach completely.

First Published: Feb 19, 2012 00:17 IST