I know I'm a broken record about this stuff but, well, here's Joe Klein:
If Obama is not reelected, it will be because he comes across as disdaining what he does for a living. I don't think he thinks of it that way, but you watch someone with a real love of the game -- Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell, Mississippi's Haley Barbour (and, of course, William Jefferson Clinton) -- and you can tell the difference immediately. The most important leading indicator of a one-term presidency in my lifetime has been indifference on the stump. George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter were fine men, but diffident, tone-deaf pols. (Bush managed to get elected only because Michael Dukakis was even worse at it than he was; ditto for Carter and Gerald Ford.)
Just for the record, in 1980, the year Jimmy Carter lost, GDP contracted by 0.3 percent. In 1992, when George H.W. Bush lost, we were coming off a 0.2 percent contraction from the 1991 recession, and Ross Perot was running around. I'm not here to argue that Bush or Carter were great campaigners or that their political mistakes didn't cost them anything. But at one point, both of them were considered pretty good campaigners (good enough to land the presidency, at least), and then they got a reputation as terrible campaigners after they tried to run a reelection campaign against the headwinds of serious recessions. I don't know of any recent presidents who have turned in impressive performances in those conditions. Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all ran for reelection amidst roaring economies.
Which is all to say that the leading indicator of a one-term president seems to be a bad economy during the presidential campaign. Maybe a truly great campaigner could get around that, but I don't know of anyone who has done it in the last 50 years. And for all the talk of FDR's midterm performance in 1932, GDP grew by more than 10 percent that year.
August 30, 2010; 6:11 PM ET
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