Fundamentals and the Triumph of Avoiding Disaster

John Sides has an excellent post up called “The Fundamentals Mattered in 2012.” He’s not saying that the campaigns didn’t matter at all, but that the context for the campaign was a playing field favoring Barack Obama; as Matthew Dickinson reminded us before the polls closed, the consensus of fundamentals-based forecasts called for a narrow Obama victory.

Absolutely true, and the place to begin. But step back a bit. By “fundamentals,” we’re talking about the economy, mainly, right? Or, perhaps, the economy and having an incumbent running for re-election.

That’s not all, however. The prediction model that John used over at Wonkblog, and quite other models, had a third element: presidential approval rating. To be sure: to some extent, approval is yet another measure for the economy. But it isn’t only that. It also picks up a large chunk of everything else that’s going on.

And what I’d argue about Obama, especially in contrast to failed presidency such as George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, is that his chief clear achievement that contributed to his okay approval rating and therefore to his re-election, the main “everything else” was…avoiding disasters.

Because there were just so many potential ones in his way over the last four years. The most obvious, of course, was the free-falling economy right when he took office. Perhaps that was an opportunity, too, but there was no guarantee of that — no guarantee that the two quarters of severe contraction that framed his inauguration would give way to positive if inadequate growth instead of continued contraction. And it’s not hard at all to imagine policy outcomes that might have done that. Most observers would agree that a failed auto policy could have been catastrophic. So would have been another round of bank failures. Or a failure to pass a stimulus bill. Smart critics of the administration have mostly focused on whether the recovery act could have been better structured or larger, and those are fair questions. But with only 58 Democrats in the Senate at the time, and an almost-unified GOP determined to filibuster anything, there was no guarantee that any stimulus would pass, let alone a large one. Was the stimulus optimal? Probably not. Did it avoid disaster? Absolutely.

Continue on through the administration, through events large and small. The gulf oil spill that was horrible, but didn’t get worse. Withdrawal from Iraq: yes, that did merely carry out the Bush administration retreat, but I continue to believe that, say, a McCain administration would have fought hard to stay in Iraq, and took on considerable risks in doing so. It’s hard to call Afghanistan policy over the last four years a success…but again, it wasn’t a disaster either. The Afghan government didn’t fall; but at the same time Obama also didn’t turn initial increased involvement into an ever-increasing quagmire. The Arab Spring brought a host of potential disasters; none of them, so far, have been realized. And of course the United States continued to avoid a horrific terrorism attack back at home.

After avoiding disaster in 2009, the economy was subject to all sorts of potential crises in the next three years, most notably the possibility of a European economic meltdown. There was also the possibility of a self-inflicted economic calamity in the US thanks to Tea Party brinkmanship in the House of Representatives. All told, there were several times when economists (and political pundits) thought the odds of a double-dip recession were high. But it never happened. Nor was there a government shutdown with the president held accountable. Could have happened. Just as the Affordable Care Act could have collapsed at various points along the legislative (or judicial) trail.

Don’t forget, too, another kind of disaster that the Obama administration avoided: scandal.

Which, then, gets us to Sandy, a perfect symbol for the argument. Terrible hurricanes don’t always end well for presidents. This one may well have helped him.

Some of all of this, of course, may have been luck. Some of the particular items here, one might argue, would not have changed Obama’s approval ratings even if they had gone badly. Some, however, was almost certainly a consequence of at least baseline administration competence.

In other words, I would argue that part of the “fundamentals” going into the campaign was a Barack Obama who had managed to avoid serious self-damage over the course of his presidency. Is that a low bar? Perhaps — but the list of self-damage in presidencies is a very long one, as anyone with memories of the George W. Bush administration can tell us.

We don’t, of course, put presidents on Rushmore for avoiding shooting themselves (and the nation) in the foot. We value decisive accomplishments. Winning wars. Passing laws. And sure, positive accomplishments are good, too, and Obama had his share of those, some of which I’m discussing here in this somewhat different context. But as I look back at Obama’s first term, it’s the disasters that didn’t happen that really stand out to me the most. And it’s the ingredient into the “fundamentals” of the 2012 election cycle that, while not about the campaign, was very much about what Barack Obama did in office.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.