President Barack Obama is likely to be defeated in 2012. The reason is that he faces four serious threats. The economy is very weak and unlikely to experience a robust recovery by Election Day. Key voter groups have soured on him. He's defending unpopular policies. And he's made bad strategic decisions.
Let's start with the economy. Unemployment is at 9.1%, with almost 14 million Americans out of work. Nearly half the jobless have been without work for more than six months. Mr. Obama promised much better, declaring that his February 2009 stimulus would cause unemployment to peak at 8% by the end of summer 2009 and drop to roughly 6.8% today.
After boasting in June 2010 that "Our economy . . . is now growing at a good clip," he laughingly admitted last week, "Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected." The humor will be lost on most. In Wednesday's Bloomberg poll, Americans believe they are worse off than when Mr. Obama took office by a 44% to 34% margin.
The last president re-elected with unemployment over 7.2% was FDR in 1936. Ronald Reagan overcame 7.2% unemployment because the rate was dropping dramatically (it had been over 10%) as the economy grew very rapidly in 1983 and 1984. Today, in contrast, the Federal Reserve says growth will be less than 3% this year and less than 3.8% next year, with unemployment between 7.8% and 8.2% by Election Day.
Mr. Obama also has problems with his base. For example, Jewish voters are upset with his policy toward Israel, and left-wing bloggers at last week's NetRoots conference were angry over Mr. Obama's failure to deliver a leftist utopia. Weak Jewish support could significantly narrow Mr. Obama's margin in states like Florida, while a disappointed left could deprive him of the volunteers so critical to his success in 2008.
Mr. Obama's standing has declined among other, larger groups. Gallup reported his job approval rating Tuesday at 45%, down from 67% at his inaugural. Among the groups showing a larger-than-average decline since 2009 are whites (down 25 points); older voters (down 24); independents and college graduates (both down 23), those with a high-school education or less, men, and Southerners (all down 22); women (down 21 points); married couples and those making $2,000-$4,000 a month (down 20). This all points to severe trouble in suburbs and midsized cities in states likes Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Nevada.
There's more. Approval among younger voters has dropped 22 points, and it's dropped 20 points among Latinos. Even African-American voters are less excited about Mr. Obama than they were—and than he needs them to be. For example, if their share of the turnout drops just one point in North Carolina, Mr. Obama's 2008 winning margin there is wiped out two and a half times over.
While many voters still personally like Mr. Obama, they deeply oppose his policies, and he tends to be weakest on issues voters consider most important. In the June 13 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 56% disapprove of Mr. Obama's handling of the economy. Fifty-nine percent in the Economist/YouGov poll of June 14 disapprove of how he's dealt with the deficit.
And his health-care reform still holds its unique place as the only major piece of social legislation that became less popular after it was passed. According to yesterday's Pollster.com average of recent surveys, 38% approve of ObamaCare, while its survey average when the bill was passed in March 2010 showed that 41% approved.
Finally, Mr. Obama has made a strategic blunder. While he needs to raise money and organize, he decided to be a candidate this year rather than president. He 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.
In politics, 17 months can constitute several geological ages. Political fortunes can wax and wane. And weak incumbents can defeat even weaker challengers.
At the same time, objective circumstances like an anemic economy and bad decisions not only matter; they become very nearly dispositive. Mr. Obama is now at the mercy of policies and events he has set in motion. He can't escape accountability, especially on the economy. He's not done yet, but it will be tough to recover. More in a future column.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, June 23, 2011.