By Sid Salter
STARKVILLE – Perhaps Gov. Haley Barbour’s decision to forego a bid for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination was fortuitous, even prescient.
Despite the worst recession since the Great Depression, despite two ongoing military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and despite the mire of runaway government debt and deficits on Capitol Hill, the eventual Republican nominee in 2012 will face the $1 billion campaign of incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama and defeating him will be no small feat. National pundits – and some closer to home who know Barbour – have suggested that Barbour’s fortunes in seeking the GOP nod were shaping up nicely enough, but that the prospects for any Republican successfully taking on Obama in November were less encouraging.
While the vaunted $1 billion Obama campaign war chest is not a factor to be ignored, it is not the overriding factor in giving Obama a decided advantage heading into the 2012 elections.
The fact is that the odds against unseating an incumbent U.S. president, any incumbent U.S. president are long. During the 20th century through the tenures of 17 American presidents, only five incumbents -William Howard Taft in 1912, Herbert Hoover in 1932, the never elected Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 – were unseated from office. In other words, incumbent presidents over the 20th century were re-elected about 70 percent of the time regardless the status of the economy, international conflicts or domestic policies.
Taft in 1912 got caught in political no-man’s-land between warring factions of his own Republican Party and his first term actually split the GOP into the traditional party and the new Progressive Party – which guaranteed the election of Democratic challenger Woodrow Wilson. Hoover was roundly blamed for the Depression by the voters in 1932.
Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980 based on inflation, high interest rates and abject failure in dealing with the Iranian hostage crisis. Carter’s daring efforts to launch a rescue ended in a debacle of crashed helicopters in the desert. Despite leading a successful first Gulf War and standing down Saddam Hussein’s insurgence into Kuwait, George H.W. Bush lost a re-election bid to Bill Clinton due primarily to the third party run of Texas millionaire Ross Perot.
Many of the themes that are sounded in recounting how incumbent presidents were defeated in the 20th century directly apply to the approaching 2012 election. Obama will drag a protracted recession, a collapsed housing market, high unemployment, unpopular health care reforms along with the afore-mentioned government debts and deficits along the campaign trail – a trail that will be traveled on $4-per-gallon or better gasoline.
But unlike Carter, Obama now will be able to point to a successful resolution of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden to his resume. The capture and execution of bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALS in a firefight in a safe house in the suburbs of Islamabad, Pakistan is everything that Carter’s failed raid on Tehran, Iran wasn’t during the Iranian hostage crisis. Killing bid Laden and avenging the death of the victims of the 9-11 attacks is an opportunity to escalate a withdrawal from both Afghanistan and Iraq. There are signs that the economy is turning around.
Energy costs and joblessness are now Obama’s biggest negatives. For Republican challengers, the biggest negative is that their nominee is facing the same internal party schisms that plagued William Howard Taft back in 2012 – establishment Republicans and Tea Party conservatives within the GOP are at serious odds over the direction of the party.
When that happens – and if serious third party candidates emerge – the results are dangerous. Don’t believe it? Ask George H.W. Bush.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (662) 325-2506 or firstname.lastname@example.org.