As the young trail-blazing Democratic president began his re-election campaign, a leading columnist at the New York Times wrote:
There is a vague feeling of doubt and disappointment about the president’s first term. … He has touched the intellect of the country, but not its heart. He has informed but not inspired the nation. He is the most popular figure, but he has been lucky in his competition.
He has the headlines. He is on television more than his opponents combined. … Accordingly, his problem is probably not how to get elected but how to govern … he is simply better known than anybody else, and this will probably be enough to assure his re-election, but it is a far cry from the atmosphere he promised when he ran for the presidency.
That wasn’t Paul Krugman writing in 2012; that was James Reston describing President John Kennedy’s prospects on November 15, 1963 — a week before JFK was assassinated.
But the current generation of Democrats should heed Reston’s caution: while President Obama may have won an undeniably great come-from-behind victory, it was also undeniably an extremely narrow one. A flip of one point would have swung the national popular vote to Mitt Romney, and that same one-point shift in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado would have given Romney 272 votes in the Electoral College.
President Obama may go down as the luckiest candidate in American history, as he was twice rescued by outside events. In early September of 2008, John McCain had surged to a five-point lead in the Gallup poll after a successful Republican National Convention. Two weeks later, the stock market crashed, and Obama went ahead by four points in the Gallup poll on the way to a 53-46% win.
In mid-October of 2012, after Romney performed well in the first debate, he had a seven-point lead (52-45%) in the Gallup poll. (Romney also gained in the key battleground states of Florida and Ohio after the first debate). Then, Hurricane Sandy pounded the Atlantic Coast, turning the president into an “above-the-fray” national unifier and chief executive. By the final weekend, Obama had moved slightly ahead in the Gallup poll of all registered voters, while 68% of Americans approved of his response to the storm. The ultimate “October Surprise” unleashed by nature perhaps saved his job.
In all but three states — storm-tossed New Jersey, Louisiana (the second highest percentage of black voters), and Alaska (no Sarah Palin on the GOP ticket) — the president got a lower percentage of the vote, just as he did nationally. Beyond a very narrow mandate (the president won at least four million fewer voters and two states less than in 2008), the Obama administration faces numerous problems that could derail a second term quickly: not enough jobs, massive debt, a perpetually volatile Middle East, a banking system and stock market that could crash at any time, a still-burgeoning European debt crisis, and rising energy prices. Other than that, everything is fine.