Jul 17 2011

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The Luck of Barack Obama and the Debt Ceiling

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Improbable Luck at Every Stage

Luck is the inscrutable component of any successful politician, but it has played an out-sized role in the career of Barack Obama. Indeed, fortune has smiled on the President since he entered politics.

In his inaugural campaign for state Senate in 1996, Obama faced a crowded field in the Democratic primary. Obama won the nomination, and the subsequent election, by successfully contesting the nominating petitions of three candidates, including those of a sitting state Senator, Alice Palmer, who would have been Obama’s strongest opponent.

Without Palmer in the race, Obama won easily.

Despite an undistinguished and pedestrian record in the state Senate, where Obama voted “present” more than 100 times, the state Senator won the Democratic nomination for the US Senate in 2004. Obama faced popular, former governor Illinois Jack Ryan as the Republican nominee, in an race for an open seat that was deemed competitive by strategists.

However, three months after Ryan had won the Republican nomination, the Chicago Tribune won a lawsuit to make public the child custody files from Ryan’s divorce.  This, despite the opposition of Ryan and his former wife, who were concerned for the welfare of their son should the records be made public.

Salacious charges involving Ryan’s private life, contained in this unprecedented release of sealed records, forced the former Governor from the race. With the Republicans in disarray, and after a well received address to the Democratic National Convention, Obama easily won the race with 70% of the vote.

But the future president was a man on the move, with grander ambitions. Still, sizing up the 2008 Democratic primary field, an Obama victory seemed improbable.

If elected President in 2008, Obama would be the least experienced chief executive in at least a century, dating back to William Howard Taft in 1909.

Prior to his seven years in Springfield as a state official Obama’s career had been limited to time as a college lecturer, community organizer and successful author.

Still, Obama declared his candidacy for president slightly more than two years after being sworn into the US Senate. Obama’s accomplishments during those 700 days were as  undistinguished as his seven-year stint in the state Senate, with the exception of his notable rating as the most liberal Senator in the US Senate, beating out, of all people, Teddy Kennedy.

Yet, in a hard fought primary, Obama beat the far more experienced and odds-on favorite, Hillary Clinton, to take the nomination.

Despite the unanimity that came out of the Democratic convention in Denver, Obama’s margin of victory over Clinton in pledged delegates was only 127 out of 3,405, making it the closet presidential primary in modern history.

The enthusiasm and history surrounding Obama’s nomination clouded an otherwise very near loss.

And an odd thing happened to Barack Obama as he marched to secure the Democratic nomination.  The closer Obama got to the Democratic convention, the narrower the race became between him and the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain.  All through August, as both party’s prepaed for their conventions, Obama’s ratings began to slip.

Though Obama rocketed to a 9 point lead over McCain after the Democratic convention in late August, McCain had regained the upper hand by early September. On September 9th, Gallup had McCain leading by 5 points.

And then chance intervened again.

On September 15th, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, catalyzing a financial panic that would lead to the Great Recession of 2008-9. President Bush as the incumbent, was held responsible, along with his party, among the country’s voters. McCain, who was the de facto incumbent as the Republican candidate, suffered as a result.

With the economic crisis in full spiral, after September 20th, McCain never again led in the presidential race.  Barack Obama won on November 4th by better than 7 points.

Today, President Obama’s charmed political career faces its first genuine threat.

Unemployment is at 9.2%. Economic growth is sub-par. Trillions in government stimulus has failed to catalyze recovery, while deficits and debt rocket to eye-popping levels.

The President’s approval rating hovers in the mid40s. Even that worrisome number tanks when voters are asked about the president’s handling of specific issues such as the economy, the deficit and health care.

White Obama has out-raised all of the Republican presidential candidates combined, demonstrating his financial prowess, money can’t make up for failing policies and disappointing results.

President Obama is increasingly looking at a reprise of 1980, a very tough fight at the least.

But enter the intangibles of fortune.

As the clock ticks down the the debt ceiling deadline, recalcitrant conservatives among the House Frosh-87 and some new Senate Members astonishingly see US default on the national debt as a viable option to force federal spending cuts.

Beyond the cascade of economic horrors that default would unleash,however, the primary political outcome of US default would be to tie Republicans directly and eternally to the failed Obama economy.

Republicans would own it as much as the President, depriving the GOP of its new found credibility as the adult party, and of the most powerful issue to beat the President in 2012.

In a career of improbable advances, who would believe that the keys to Barack Obama’s re-election would be found in his most implacable opponents.









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