Paul Begala: Can Obama Weather the Storm Against Incumbents?

Scott Olson / Getty Images

It stinks to be an incumbent officeholder these days. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party lost nearly 300 seats in local elections. Nicolas Sarkozy of France is now properly addressed as Monsieur le ex-President. His partner in austerity, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saw her Christian Democratic Union suffer what she called a “bitter, painful defeat” in the May 13 election. In Greece, the two major parties that have been running the country for decades were rejected by the voters. About the only elected world leaders who have been able to extend their hold on power are Russia’s Vladimir Putin—whose party’s recent victory was widely seen as fraudulent—and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu—who cannily cut a deal to expand his governing coalition without an election. So unless you can rig an election or cancel it, you’re in trouble as an incumbent.

Something big is going on.

The dirty little secret of campaigns is that there are usually just two messages. Either: Stay the Course or It’s Time for a Change. When Barack Obama won 53 percent of the popular vote and carried 28 states, just 14 percent of Americans thought we were moving in the right direction. So it was obviously a Time for a Change election. When Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton coasted to easy reelections, the country’s mood was undeniably Stay the Course. The election coming up in November is stuck in between. Americans don’t know whether to forge ahead or swing back.

Quick readers’ guide to the 2012 polls: until the final two weeks, ignore the head-to-head horserace. It’s an artificial question: “If the election were held today, would you vote for Mitt Romney or Barack Obama?” You can almost hear the poor person on the other end of the phone saying, “It’s only May. We don’t know Romney’s running mate or his platform. We haven’t had debates or even a campaign.”

Instead of obsessing about who’s up and who’s down, look at how folks view the direction of the country. When the “right direction” number creeps up close to 50 percent, the incumbent is going to win. But when it plunges, get ready to back the moving van up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. At this writing, that all-important indicator is a middling 31 percent—almost precisely equidistant from both an outright rejection of Obama and an incumbent’s safe reelection.

Incumbents have power, to be sure, but even presidents lack the capacity to give the economy a massive jolt in the election’s final months—especially this president, who has to deal with the ideologically rabid Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives. So what is an endangered incumbent to do? Change the topic to the other guy.

Sure, the president has more than his share of accomplishments to brag about. As Vice President Joe Biden summed it up: “General Motors is alive and bin Laden is dead.” Not to mention landmark Wall Street reform, equal-pay protections for women, popular consumer protections embedded in his unpopular health-care reform bill, and two stellar Supreme Court nominees. But in the main it will be the Obama campaign’s job to make 2012 a choice, not a referendum.

The president needs to imitate Henny Youngman. When the Borscht Belt comic was asked, “How’s your wife?” he’d respond, “Compared to what?” That should be the answer President Obama—and every incumbent—gives to every question. Then pivot to an attack on his or her opponent on the issue. Try it:

How’s your health-care bill, Mr. President? “Well, it’s very similar to Mitt Romney’s actually. We both have an individual mandate, but where we differ is he would repeal consumer protections that bar insurance companies from denying you coverage for a preexisting condition.”

How’s the economy, Mr. President? “Compared to what I inherited from the Republicans, better. But it’s not good enough. And we certainly can’t afford to follow Mitt Romney’s approach and return to the same, tired Bush policies of cutting taxes for the very rich and causing the gradual demise of traditional Medicare.”

The Henny Youngman strategy is essentially what George W. Bush used in 2004, when he was about as weak heading into reelection as President Obama is today. Team Bush’s attacks on Democratic nominee John Kerry were relentless—and effective. Despite the fact that half the country wanted to deny him a second term, Bush squeaked out a victory.

Putting your opponent on trial and pounding him with ceaseless attacks certainly lacks the elevated tone of 2008’s campaign of “Hope and Change.” But at a time of anti-incumbent fervor, it may be the incumbent’s best hope to avoid an unwanted change.