The Republicans are in a strange place. Having dominated the agenda for the past eighteen months and now with less than a year to go until the first primaries – the blink of an eye in the context of a US campaign cycle – the GOP has no candidate posing a serious threat to Obama’s 2012 reelection bid. Is Newt Gingrich about to change that?
With current approval ratings of 60 per cent, it’s a measure of Obama’s formidable strength that Republicans have been so slow to enter the race. He’s been in several bloody fights with Congress yet the president remains popular and has showed Americans he can scrap and win. He’s an unrivalled campaigner with a unique ability to mobilise volunteers: millions of dollars already piling into his war chest and there is even speculation that he will mount the first ever billion dollar campaign.
History warns of the daunting scale of the task facing those challenging the incumbent: only three sitting presidents have lost re-election bids since the end of the war. All of those – Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush senior —had to fight bruising contests within their own parties, whereas Obama will not face such a challenge from Democrats. What’s more, the president took office only two and a half years ago after two terms of Republican rule: will voters really be so quick to give up on a Democrat in the White House?
But for all his strengths, including his recently burnished credentials as commander in chief, Obama is vulnerable on the most important battleground: the economy. Unemployment (9 per cent) is higher now than it has been at any election in the past 60 years. Despite recent positive jobs data, the economy is still on a knife edge and if the jobless total touches 10 per cent, a Gingrich narrative that Americans are worse off now than when he took office will be hard to escape.
Other factors make the threat of such an attack real. House prices are still in the dumps and people are feeling the pinch from the soaring cost price of fuel. Disquiet at tax rises has rippled beyond a narrow band of the electorate and threatens to spread to Average Joe. Obama’s team won’t have forgotten how Joe the Plumber shot from obscurity to cause so much trouble in the 2008 campaign.
Conservative attacks on Obama’s handling of public finances and his lack of a deficit reduction plan have been sticking since the Republicans stormed Congress last November. Today, six out of ten Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy. While that is far from disastrous, if the wind continues to blow in the same direction, he will be fighting Gingrich (who in 1994 engineered the Republicans’ first takeover of the House in a generation) on territory he knows as well as any politician in America.
Of course, the intellectual firebrand has major weaknesses too. His political career was all but dead in 1998 after his extra marital affairs mired him in scandal and his ability to connect with moderates is severely limited by his conservative zeal. His ‘four f’ platform – faith, family, freedom, and free enterprise – will need to shift significantly to the centre if he is to have mass appeal.
When it’s suited him, Gingrich has made some unlikely alliances (he recently supported Obama’s school reform initiatives and before that he backed Al Gore’s environmental alliance), so perhaps we will see a broader platform.
Only one former Speaker of the House has ever become president. Gingrich’s formidable intellect, ego and ambition give him an outside chance of becoming the second.