Back on July 1, 2011, I wrote a piece headlined “Obama 2012: Never Underestimate the Power of Incumbency.”
After re-reading it while researching for this piece, it became apparent to me that eight years later, I could substitute Donald Trump’s name for Obama’s, change a few details (such as the date of the election), replace the word Republicans with Democrats and repost the piece.
Given how Obama successfully leveraged the power of incumbency to win reelection with a permanent self-centered campaign that spewed aggressive partisan rhetoric, it appears that Trump is following Obama’s playbook, only on steroids.
Setting a precedent that Trump has emulated, Obama was the first president to blatantly and unabashedly continue his victorious 2008 campaign organization — Obama for America — with only a minor name change.
Organizing for America, the grassroots organization that Obama announced on Jan. 17, 2009, before he took office, began with an email list of 13 million names. It was “run” (wink-wink) by the Democratic National Committee to mobilize support for the president’s policies and of course, raise money.
Harnessing, embracing, and refining the new technology of email blasts, Team Obama reached millions of supporters with one click, always testing and honing the president’s reelection message. (As a “spy” on their list, I was a first-hand witness.)
Then along came President Trump, who started running for reelection on Inauguration Day. On Jan. 20, 2017, the Washington Post reported, “President Trump tells the FEC he qualifies as a candidate for 2020.”
Practically every day since Trump took office, I receive a text message asking me for a campaign donation. Do voters ever get a break?
Obviously, incumbent presidents always have a reelection advantage; they have a 68.7% success rate, starting with George Washington winning his second term in 1792, a victory trend that includes the last three officeholders.
Whether Trump ends or lengthens the current streak is anyone’s guess.
At this writing, I could equally argue both ways, but that is for a future column. Instead, let’s revisit my July 1, 2011 criticism of Obama’s “early” run for reelection and in your mind substitute Trump’s name. These quotes should please Trump supporters, considering that Obama’s narcissistic, antagonistic, partisan style got him reelected.
Like a good salesman, Obama cannot stop selling his product — himself — long after the sale is finalized. It’s as if he knows his God-given talents are more suited to ‘campaigner in chief’ than the expected chief executive/commander in chief.
All Obama will continue to do up until November 6, 2012, is recite the same old red-meat rhetoric about how those scary Republicans messed things up so bad; thus, why on earth would you let them back into the White House?
Obama will have the trappings of power, the White House and Air Force One, all harnessed to raise more money than any political campaign in the history of the world, while on ‘official business’ by day and as ‘fundraiser in chief’ at night — usually in the same town, of course.
Since he took office in January 2009, President Obama has never stopped campaigning.
With Obama, it is always us vs. them.
I believe Obama’s carefully calculated partisan behavior will actually increase his chances of winning a second term.
Now for some important context. I wrote my July 2011 piece as a critical response to Karl Rove’s June 22, 2011 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “Why Obama Is Likely to Lose in 2012.”
Rove’s contention was that Obama, a year and a half before Election Day, was acting more like a partisan candidate than a president, writing:
He [Obama] has thus unnecessarily abandoned one of incumbency’s great strengths, which is the opportunity to govern and distance himself from partisan politics until next spring. Instead, Team Obama has attacked potential GOP opponents and slandered Republican proposals with abandon. This is not what the public is looking for from the former apostle of hope and change.
Partisan behavior did not deter Obama from winning another term, nor did it keep Trump out of the White House. Hence, since the era of Obama and now magnified by Trump, has the electorate been conditioned to expect and accept highly partisan rhetoric from its presidents?
I wrote in that July 2011 piece, “He [Obama] will ask in various ways, ‘How can you trust those Republicans?’”
Now, Trump is asking, “How can you trust those left-wing socialist Democrats?”
Does promoting division lead to reelection?
Incumbency provided Obama with a perpetual power platform from which he could denigrate Republicans as a warm-up to devouring Mitt Romney, his 2012 opponent.
Today, Trump devours everyone in his path with incumbency, only accentuating his bravado. One can only imagine how the general election will play out with a bully in the “Bully Pulpit.”
Now let’s compare Obama and Trump’s RealClearPolitics job approval poll average at this point in their first terms.
When I wrote my July 1, 2011 piece predicting that Obama would win reelection, his RCP job approval was 47% with 46.6% disapproving, an almost perfect split. By comparison, on July 1, 2019, Trump’s RCP job approval was 43.6% with 52.3% disapproving.
On Sept.11, 2011, Obama’s RCP job approval average dropped to 43.3% with 50.7% disapproving. This week, on Sept. 11, Trump’s job approval average was 43.1% with 53.9% disapproving, numbers essentially consistent, give or take a point or two, since he took office.
Trump’s higher job disapproval average than Obama’s signals that national polarization has increased. But can Trump, like Obama, successfully turn partisanship to his advantage by leveraging the power of incumbency with a continuous “us vs. them” message, further enhanced by fear, divisiveness, and nonstop drama?
Obama, presiding over a slow-growth but improving economy, won reelection with 51.1% of the vote over Romney’s 47.2%, along with a comfortable 332-206 Electoral College victory.
Here is a key point with negative implications for Trump: Obama’s winning margin slightly decreased from 2008 when he won 52.9% of the popular vote compared to 45.7% for Sen. John McCain, and an impressive Electoral College tally of 365-173.
However, Obama’s perpetual, partisan reelection campaign had plenty of room to decline compared to his 2008 victory blowout.
Trump, by comparison, lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by close to 3 million ballots. But, famously, he won the Electoral College, 304-227, thanks to 77,744 votes across three traditional “blue” states (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan) with their 46 electoral vote total. Talk about lucky sevens!
Therefore, unlike Obama, Trump has no room for marginal decline. To win reelection, he must play a full deck of hyper-partisan trump cards, hope the economy stays strong, and leverage his incumbent powers like no president in history.
My recommendation: Shelter in place.
Cross posted at RealClear Politics