Alan Fisher - Journalist

Personal website of Al Jazeera English journalist, Alan Fisher

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Obama's Historic Challenge

Posted on August 31, 2011 at 1:15 PM

A sign the summer is almost over is that the politicians are returning to Washington DC.

In the next few days – they’ll get down to business again. Attention is turning to the election next year. And in the quiet corners and coffee shops across the city, hushed conversations are raising the possibility of the first challenge to Barak Obama could come from within his own party.

Jimmy Carter was the last sitting Democrat to face a serious primary challenge – and no president who had to convince his own party he was still the man for the top job has gone on to win the election.

But Barak Obama is in trouble.

Just four months ago – his approval ratings surged on the back of the death of Osama Bin Laden. Some suggested the election was as good as won. But like George Bush Snr after his successful campaign in expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait – high ratings boosted by foreign policy success will count for nothing. This election will be fought on the mantra Clinton successfully employed against Bush ‘It’s the economy, stupid’.

The outlook is dismal. In the last few days economic growth has been revised downward to just one percent – and that’s not enough to put a dent in the chronically high unemployment figures. When the election rolls around, the projected rate of those out of work will be at or above 8.5 percent. The last time America sent a president back to the White House with those sorts of numbers was in 1940. Roosevelt won because unemployment was going down from the figure he inherited. Reagan did the same in 1984. Obama came into office with a jobless rate of 7.8 percent, and unlike the historical precedents, the economy is expected to get even worse.

Team Obama will cite the mess that they had to clean up, the global financial crisis they’d had to deal with. They hoped the high spending stimulus package they put in place two and a half years ago would work and high unemployment would not be an election issue

According to the Washington Post, a President needs a job approval rating of at least 50 percent to be safe on election day. Obama is down in the lower forties.

He can come back from that. This month he will announce his new economic plan. If it’s seen as bold and ambitious, if it gets support and passes congress, then his numbers could rise once more.

And he could be helped by the disarray the Republican Party continues to find itself in. No clear front runner has emerged from the plethora of candidates to declare they are in the race. Mitt Romney is still viewed with suspicion by the party’s base, Sarah Palin has yet to decide if she’s in or out and the growth in strength of the Tea Party frightens many independents and many in the centre of the party.

But if a credible challenger were to emerge, Barak Obama, the man elected by promising a change in politics, a change in the way Washington works, would then have to go negative in the general election.

His team would have to find a way to make the economy and unemployment not the major issue. And the best way to do that is to question the capability, the talents of the GOP nominee, make the election about trust rather than policies.

But first Barak Obama has to convince his own supporters he can do the job. Oregon Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio has already questioned if the president can win re-election while one of his biggest supporters, California Congresswoman Maxine Walters says while she loves the president, unemployment is hurting and there’s no sign of a strategy.

To win the election in the first place, Barak Obama had to re-write the political playbook, to confound expectations and create his own piece of history. If he wants to win a second term – he’s going to have to do it again.


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