Yet no one with half a brain in his head—and certainly no one with access to Obama’s ear—is under any illusion that a general election against Romney would not be a close-run thing. (A contest against Gingrich or Rick Santorum, by contrast, summons mental images of a stroll along a road paved with red-velvet cake.) For all the damage inflicted so far on the former Massachusetts governor, he is still running even with Obama in many battleground states and with independents nationally. Among registered voters, Romney is rated more highly than the president in terms of his ability to manage the economy and pare down the monstrous federal deficit.
And then there are those potential shocks I referred to earlier. Now, it’s true that external variables are always present in any presidential campaign, and that dealing with them is a persistent challenge for any incumbent. But rarely are they as likely or as potentially threatening as the ones that may confront Obama before November 6. To my mind, there are four:
1. Iran. Early this month, the redoubtable Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta believes there is a growing likelihood that Israel will attack Iran in the next few months in an effort to dash its nuclear ambitions. If that scenario does indeed unfold, the ensuing crisis and its implications for American domestic politics would be huge—and thoroughly unpredictable.
2. Europe. As of this writing, the fate of the proposed $170 billion Greek financial bailout was unclear, with the country’s political leadership having accepted new austerity measures but elements of its parliament refusing to go along. Yet even if the bailout happens, the risk that a crisis in the eurozone will cascade across the global economy and impact the American recovery will only diminish, not disappear.
3. Unemployment. There are plenty of economic forecasters now predicting that the jobless rate, currently at 8.3 percent, will be below 8 percent by the end of 2012. And if that is the case, it will plainly benefit Obama politically. But at the end of January, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that unemployment would rise again in the second half of this year, to 8.9 percent—and threaten the perception that Obama and his team, at last, have the economy moving in the right direction.
4. Third Party. Both the White House and the Republican campaigns are keeping a close eye on Americans Elect, the well-funded outfit that is on its way to securing ballot access in all 50 states for an independent, bipartisan “unity ticket.” The group’s online nominating process is now under way, though its outcome won’t be known until early this summer. It’s possible, of course, that the Americans Elect ticket—assuming it winds up with two credible, non-crazy personages on it—will take away equally from both Obama and his Republican rival or take more votes from the latter. But it’s more likely, given the kinds of potential candidates that the group has been recruiting, that a vaguely center-left ticket will emerge, thus posing a greater threat to the president.
Of course, it’s conceivable that all four of these potential shocks will come to naught—although nothing about Obama’s first three years in office suggests that he is blessed with that kind of luck. What he and his team have demonstrated in the past five months, however, is sufficient skill and resilience to bounce back from the myriad political nightmares that afflicted them last summer. In doing so, they have not guaranteed Obama’s reelection; far from it. But they have put themselves in the best position possible for any incumbent, and especially one facing off in the fall against this particular crop of Republicans: the position to turn the general election into a choice and not a referendum.