If there was one iron law I learned in my years working in the White House it is this: stuff happens. (Of course, we had a more scatalogical way of putting it, but you get the point.) Life is uncertain, and the White House is uncertainty cubed. I often felt like one of those old vaudevillians who spun plates on The Ed Sullivan Show. A good day meant no plates dropped.
Looking at the presidential campaign today, we see the Republicans forming a circular firing squad, an economy that is improving, and a president who is finding his voice as a powerful champion of middle-class families. That means that in September, the Republicans will be even more divided, the economy will be even stronger, and the president will have an approval rating in the 70s.
The GOP will unify. Where once their central organizing principle was opposing communism, now it is opposing Barack Obama. As long as he is on the ballot, the Republicans will be able to reunite. There is not much the White House can do about that. The reality is the GOP demolition derby will end soon enough, and the president will be in a neck-and-neck race all year.
The economy, too, is a variable. If I knew that the economy was certain to continue to grow, I would not have to work my fingers to the bone on a keyboard, or yak myself hoarse on cable news. But let us hope, if not expect, that the fragile recovery strengthens a bit.
That leaves the biggest and most important wild card of all: foreign policy. Between now and the election a lot can happen—and a lot can go wrong in the world. Here are just a few wild-card scenarios:
War with Iran. Israel is our closest ally. Support for Israel is one of the last issues on which most Democrats and most Republicans agree. So an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear installations could quickly involve the United States. Oil prices could skyrocket, and terrorism against Americans could spike—overseas and even here at home. The political fallout is impossible to predict. It is entirely likely that Americans would rally around their president, as we did in 1979 when Iranian terrorists seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. The crisis propelled President Jimmy Carter to a 65–31 lead over Ronald Reagan in an ABC News/Harris poll in January of 1980. Of course, in January of 1981 Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, having defeated Carter by 10 points. So a rallying effect lasts only so long.
Pakistan. The scenarios are too numerous—and too gloomy—to enunciate. A nuclear power and an alleged ally in the war on terror, Pakistan somehow did not know that the murderer of 2,975 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, was living less than a mile from its major military academy. Right. What if the Zardari government is overthrown by the military? What if it’s overthrown by Islamists? What if it identifies or expels American intelligence assets operating in Pakistan? When the actor George Clooney pressed President Obama to reveal what keeps him up at night, the answer wasn’t negative ads or super PACs or any of the political Sturm und Drang. POTUS’s one-word answer: “Pakistan.”
Oil. A virulent Muslim terrorist group is attacking Christians in Nigeria, America’s fifth-largest oil supplier. Narcoterrorists ravage Mexico, our second largest. And Hugo Chávez, the socialist thug running Venezuela (our fourth-largest oil supplier), has cancer and may be even more unpredictable than ever. Without any of those countries exploding, gas prices are creeping toward $4 a gallon. If any one of them blows, we could experience another oil shock.
Ultimately, the best foreign policy is the best politics. President Obama’s foreign policy has been remarkably successful. Just ask 22 of the top 30 al Qaeda leaders. Oh, wait, you can’t. They’re dead—on Obama’s orders. He has approved 239 Predator drone attacks in just three years. George W. Bush approved 44 in eight years, the wuss. As he promised in the 2008 campaign, Obama has ended America’s combat mission in Iraq, which has been the most divisive issue in America, indeed the world. He is imposing tough sanctions on the terrorists in Tehran and has won what may be pivotal concessions from North Korea. He’s helped lead on the European debt crisis and rebuilt America’s battered global image.
But even strength and smarts—and Obama has plenty of them all—cannot control the unforeseen. Yet another reason this election will be a tossup.