Yes (administration version): GM is alive and Bin Laden is dead. The "leading from behind" you disparage produced regime change in Libya while limiting U.S. commitment of lives and money. Oh, and Anwar al-Awlaki is dead, too. You can disagree with the direction of Obama’s leadership, but near-universal health care, financial regulation, a second stimulus (extracted during the negotiations to extend the Bush tax cuts), repeal of the "Don’t Ask, Don't Tell" policy, and the withdrawal of troops from Iraq are all significant accomplishments. Liberal critiques of the president ignore the choices he faced and the constraints on his power. Conservative attacks on his leadership are really just disagreements on the issues.
Who Is Responsible for the Bad Economy?
Obama (conservative version): The president inherited a bad economy and made it worse. The stimulus didn't work, despite the administration's predictions that unemployment would now be at 8 percent. The Congressional Budget Office says the debt it created will be a drag on the economy. As the president said, the shovel-ready projects didn't exist. As Vice President Joe Biden said, the election should be a referendum on the president's stewardship of the economy. Excessive regulations, growth in government, and uncertainty created by Obama's health care plan and the Dodd-Frank financial reform law have put business in a crouch. A Gallup poll says small business owners cite government regulations as their most pressing problem.
Obama (liberal version): Obama came into office with a mandate and a crisis. He could have lived up to those FDR magazine covers and pushed for a stimulus big enough to affect the $2 trillion output gap. Instead, he settled for a plan that (as even some of his advisers said at the time) was too small. He has wasted too much time and political capital on commissions and task forces about the deficit, when he should be focusing on No. 1 economic issue of the moment: jobs.
House Republicans: Obama's policies, passed with no help from the Republicans in Congress, reversed a recession, avoided a Depression, and created 2 million private-sector jobs over 17 months. The Congressional Budget Office just said his stimulus plan created 3.3 million jobs and saved the country from going into a depression. These efforts may have had even more of an impact were it not for the Arab Spring, the tsunami in Japan, and financial instability in Europe. In the wake of these shocks, House Republicans haven't lifted a finger to support even the infrastructure spending they once did. As for the economy being weighed down by overregulation: Obama’s White House has imposed fewer regulations than his predecessor had at this same point in his tenure.
Will Obama Win Re-Election?
No: The math makes an Obama loss inevitable. No president since World War II has won re-election with unemployment at greater than 8 percent. It's at 9 percent now and no one thinks it will be drastically lower a year from now. Presidents in the modern era who have an approval rating under 50 percent lose. Obama's approval rating is 44 percent. Short of curing cancer or fighting off the Romulans, there is nothing he can do to move his numbers up fast enough. Some 73 percent of the country thinks America is on the wrong track, while only 20 percent see it as headed in the right direction. That's as high as it has been during Obama's tenure. Obama's team wants to make this election a choice between two visions of government. But re-election campaigns are referendums on the president's performance. The independents who helped elect the president in 2008 have soured on him. They now disapprove of his performance in office by a 2-to-1 ratio. In the 12 battleground states that will determine the election, the unemployment rate is higher than the national average. In these battleground states Republicans are also twice as enthusiastic as Democrats. All Republicans have to do is nominate someone who is not considered scary and Barack Obama is a one-term president.
Yes: The election will be a choice because Obama will have so much campaign cash he'll be able to make it one. The Republican brand is unpopular, and its candidates are flawed. The president benefits, as Ron Brownstein argues, from demographic changes that increase the number of young, minority, and college-educated voters. As for the polls, even in this terrible economy the president is still pretty much even with the best Republican challenger. Once he knows his opponent and is able to draw distinctions, he'll take the lead. And if the opponent is Mitt Romney, who does better than any other Republican candidate in head-to-head polls against Obama, then Obama can argue that his challenger has no core. And one of Republicans’ favorite issues against Obama, his health care law, will be blunted with Romney as the nominee: The former Massachusetts governor may not want to admit it, but Romney’s plan served as a model for Obama’s.
Will Romney Be the Republican Nominee?
Yes: Republicans want to beat Obama. Romney consistently polls as the candidate who has the best shot. He has the cleanest message and resume for addressing the economy, the issue voters care most about. He has been almost flawless in the debates and voters can see him as a commander in chief. Republicans have been reluctant to embrace him, but that always happens as voters look for the perfect candidate. Once they realize that every candidate has flaws, they settle on the one who can actually be president, not the one who makes the most entertaining talk show host or bomb thrower. Conservatives will split the non-Romney vote in Iowa, he'll win New Hampshire and then put the race to bed in Florida.
No: Romney has been running for six years and Republican voters just won't eat the dog food. He’s only tied in Iowa, and while he leads in New Hampshire, it’s literally his back yard (he has a house there). Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich, tied with him in Iowa, leads in South Carolina and he has the momentum in the race. Romney does well when voters are asked who is the most electable, but Republicans aren’t voting on that alone. With a vulnerable president Republicans don’t have to “settle.” According to a recent CBS News poll, 58 percent said they believe it's more important to have a nominee who agrees with them on the issues than one who can beat Obama. That’s what 2010 proved to conservatives: They can win on ideology. They don’t have to pick the most electable candidate.
Is America Headed Down the Tubes?
Yes: America has fallen and it can't get up. The Great Recession isn't just a dip: The U.S. economy has changed for good. The rise of China and India means millions of new workers are competing with American workers, threatening the middle class that created the social bonds of previous generations. Our reliance on borrowed money and foreign sources of energy limits our freedom. We have fallen from first to ninth place in the proportion of young people with college degrees. When it comes to high school graduation rates, we're ranked 18th out of 24 industrialized nations. In global competitiveness, the United States has been in decline for the last three years, dropping from first to fifth. We have had crisis moments in the past, but we rose to the challenge. Our current political system, however, is incapable of addressing any problems, easy or hard. It’s not just the supercommittee’s failure to come up with a plan to reduce the debt. Even on issues where there was once agreement, such as the need to fund things such as roads, dams and bridges, there is now just gridlock.
Pass the wine.
No: You're not going to get an argument from me about political crisis. Our government is a dysfunctional mess. At the same time, these moments of unprecedented peril are a part of our national character. As James Fallows argues, America is always in decline, and is always about to bounce back. Has the last decade been any worse than the 1960s and early 1970s, which saw political assassinations, an oil crisis, inflation, an unpopular war, and the resignation of a president? In its most recent report in 2010, the National Science Board still ranked the United States as the world leader in science and technological development. America now accounts for a third of the world’s research-and-development spending. The average American worker is 10 to 11 times more productive than the average Chinese worker. Despite our problems, we still attract the world's talent to our universities and our culture.