Editor's note: For an opposing view on the GOP presidential candidates, check out David Rosman's column.
COLUMBIA — Give or take a few days, we are about 17 months away from the 2012 general election, featuring the re-election of the incumbent or the choosing of a new captain for the ship of state.
The multifarious campaign engines are revving in earnest as each Republican hopeful essays to sell him or herself to the party faithful as the favorite. Meanwhile, the president endeavors to convince the electorate that his performance merits continuation in office.
As an election judge in November 2008, I remember the excitement at the polls. Well before the 6 a.m. opening for voting, the waiting crowd exceeded the number of voters in the most recent election. The majority were young and many of them first-time voters. The draw was the attractive, charismatic candidate with considerable oratorical skill.
Trusting the public opinion polls this early is hardly a rational prediction of what is ahead for either party. The current trend tends to show President Barack Obama retaining most of his likeable persona but falling below or at 50 percent in job approval. In contrast, none of the Republicans announced as candidates appears to have grabbed the front-runner ring.
The mainstream media political pundits and syndicated columnists, most of whom list leftward, disparage the Republican prospects as a group of lightweights incapable of exciting the public. Several candidates have come in for ridicule — some of it richly deserved: Newt Gingrich, who famously shoots himself in the foot; Donald Trump, who clowned his way out of consideration; and Sarah Palin, the mere mention of whom evokes the worst in Pavlovian response from the Democratic Party faithful.
Among the declared Republicans, four are former governors (Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Gary Johnson and Jon Huntsman), one former senator (Rick Santorum), former House Speaker (Gingrich), two members of the House (Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann) and a former business executive (Herman Cain). Of the undeclared but possible candidates, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani command the most name recognition.
Granted, the advantage to the incumbent is daunting: the name, the bully pulpit, a formidable campaign team in place, a clear field in fundraising, and, for now at least, a high personal popularity. Conversely, even with the lack of a charismatic front runner, each of the declared and serious possible Republican candidates has far more political and executive acumen than President Obama did at the time of the 2008 election.
Additionally, President Obama no longer enjoys the advantage of running without a record — two terms in a state legislature and a half term as a U.S. senator, much of that time occupied campaigning, accumulates little baggage and even less experience. His presidential legacy includes a number of significant achievements — the passage of health care reform, the stimulus, the auto bailout, a finance reform bill and the increasing of troop strength in Afghanistan.
A number of his signature acts, however, have enjoyed less than popular support. Obamacare, as the health care act has been nicknamed, was muscled through over the objections of the majority of the voters and is the subject of multiple state lawsuits. With a weak economy showing little growth, unemployment remaining constant at 9-plus percent and the federal debt ceiling maxed out at $14.3 trillion, the cloud's silver lining is not readily apparent.
His current remedy, which calls for raising the debt ceiling by $2 trillion without serious offsetting spending cuts in order to borrow, tax and spend our way out of the hole, is neither playing well among serious economists nor in Peoria. Nevertheless, there is more than enough time for the economy to turn around, employment to improve and the current malaise to lift — should this come to pass, the president's re-election becomes probable.
It is much too early for anything but an educated guess, however, history has a way of being repetitive. Turn the clock back about 20 years and we find President George H. W. Bush with an 88 percent approval rating, a tally so high that the best-known Democrats were discouraged from running. A second-tier candidate, a relatively obscure but politically astute governor from Arkansas, became a two-term president, the first Democrat to do so since FDR.
Consequently, the incumbent holds most of the aces and in an improving or improved economy should be the favorite to succeed himself. However, should the status quo prevail, that yet unchosen and painted as "dull," "not charismatic," "unfeeling" and "non-progressive" Republican candidate's most valuable asset just might be that he or she is not President Obama.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.