Must read for the day: Shelby Steele's Wall Street Journal opinion article headlined “Obama’s Unspoken Re-election Edge. He argues that as America’s first black president Obama has a major advantage against any Republican nominee. Most voters, Steele argues, are ready to vote against “the mortal man” Obama but not against Obama “the cultural icon.” He agrees with Glenn Reynolds who thinks this effect is weaker the second time around, But it’s still a factor.
I tend to agree. I think that American voters have generally wanted to think well of their incumbent presidents and that this has been an advantage for incumbent presidents of both parties over the last generation—for Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2004. The exception of course is George H. W. Bush in 1992, but I think in the course of that campaign the senior Bush sent all kinds of cues that he was ready to retire and didn’t really have a pressing agenda for a second term. After all, he was 68 years old—an age that would have been considered a reasonable pretext for retiring but for the election of his predecessor at ages 69 and 73—and had served his country for most of the preceding 50 years, since he signed up as a naval aviator after graduating from Andover in June 1942. This exception will be irrelevant to Obama, running for reelection at age 51. In addition, I think that just as the prospect of electing the first black president was a factor that, on balance, worked in Obama’s favor in 2008, so a widespread reluctance to be seen rejecting the first black president will be a factor, probably not quite as strong a factor, working in his favor in 2012.
“How can the GOP combat the president's cultural charisma?” Steele asks. “It will have to make vivid the yawning gulf between Obama the flattering icon and Obama the confused and often overwhelmed president. Applaud the exceptionalism he represents, but deny him the right to ride on it as a kind of affirmative action.” It seems to me that the tone should be one more of sorrow than of anger. A good example is available in George W. Bush’s 2000 acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention, where he lamented how Bill Clinton’s great talents were squandered on small things. “Our current president embodied the potential of a generation. So many talents. So much charm. Such great skill. But, in the end, to what end? So much promise, to no great purpose.” That helped Bush, running against the incumbent vice president in a popular administration at a time of peace and prosperity, to prevail, albeit by a narrow, narrow margin.