By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF/New York Times
A YEAR before President Obama faces re-election, take a look at what has happened to other Western leaders confronting voters in this economic vortex.
Spain’s Socialist government was defeated in a crushing landslide vote a week ago, leaving the party with its fewest members of Parliament since democratic elections were introduced in 1977. That’s the pattern for incumbents from Ireland to Finland, Portugal to Denmark: Spain’s was the eighth government to topple in Europe in two years.
In this economic crisis, Obama will face the same headwinds. That should provide a bracing warning to grumbling Democrats: If you don’t like the way things are going right now, just wait.
President Obama came into office with expectations that Superman couldn’t have met. Many on the left believed what the right feared: that Obama was an old-fashioned liberal. But the president’s cautious centrism soured the left without reassuring the right.
Like many, I have disappointments with Obama. He badly underestimated the length of this economic crisis, and for a man with a spectacular gift at public speaking, he has been surprisingly inept at communicating.
But as we approach an election year, it is important to acknowledge the larger context: Obama has done better than many critics on the left or the right give him credit for.
He took office in the worst recession in more than half a century, amid fears of a complete economic implosion. As The Onion, the satirical news organization, described his election at the time: “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.”
The administration helped tug us back from the brink of economic ruin. Obama oversaw an economic stimulus that, while too small, was far larger than the one House Democrats had proposed. He rescued the auto industry and achieved health care reform that presidents have been seeking since the time of Theodore Roosevelt.
Despite virulent opposition that has paralyzed the government, Obama bolstered regulation of the tobacco industry, signed a fair pay act and tightened control of the credit card industry. He has been superb on education, weaning the Democratic Party from blind support for teachers’ unions while still trying to strengthen public schools.
In foreign policy, Obama has taken a couple of huge risks. He approved the assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, and despite much criticism he led the international effort to overthrow Muammar el-Qaddafi. So far, both bets are paying off.
Granted, the economic downturn overshadows all else, as happens in every presidency. Ronald Reagan, the Teflon president, saw his job approval rating sink to 35 percent in January 1983 because of economic troubles. A faltering economy sent the popularity of the first president Bush into a tailspin, tumbling to 29 percent in 1992.
By comparison, President Obama has about a 43 percent approval rating, according to Gallup.
Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois tells me he thinks that liberals will eventually unite behind the president. “It’s never going to be the first date we had four years ago,” he said. “But I don’t question the fact that he’ll have the support of the left.”
Still, it’s hard to see how Obama will replicate the turnout that swept him into office, or repeat victories in crucial states like Florida and Ohio.
Then again, Republicans face a similar enthusiasm gap with their likely nominee, Mitt Romney. (Republicans keep searching for any other candidate who they think would be electable, when they already have one: Jon Huntsman. They just don’t like him.)
Earlier this month, I asked Bill Clinton — who has a better intuitive feel for politics than anyone I know — about Obama’s chances for re-election. “I’ll be surprised if he’s not re-elected,” Clinton said, adding that Obama would do better when matched against a specific opponent like Romney.
Clinton said that Romney did “a very good job” as governor of Massachusetts and would be a credible general election candidate. But Clinton added that Romney or any Republican nominee would be hampered by “a political environment in the Republican primary that basically means you can’t be authentic unless you’ve got a single-digit I.Q.”
I’m hoping the European elections will help shock Democrats out of their orneriness so that they accept the reality that we’ll be facing not a referendum, but a choice. For a couple of years, the left has joined the right in making Obama a piñata. That’s fair: it lets off steam, and it’s how we keep politicians in line.
But think back to 2000. Many Democrats and journalists alike, feeling grouchy, were dismissive of Al Gore and magnified his shortcomings. We forgot the context, prided ourselves on our disdainful superiority — and won eight years of George W. Bush.
This time, let’s do a better job of retaining perspective. If we turn Obama out of office a year from now, let’s make sure it is because the Republican nominee is preferable, not just out of grumpiness toward the incumbent during a difficult time.