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Is President Obama beatable?

3Qs with Distinguished Professor of Poltical Science Michael Dukakis
September 13th, 2011

With the pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns in full swing ahead of the 2012 elec­tion, we asked Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Polit­ical Sci­ence Michael Dukakis — a two-​​term gov­ernor of Mass­a­chu­setts and the Demo­c­ratic nom­inee for pres­i­dent in 1988 — for his thoughts on the state of the 2012 pres­i­den­tial campaigns.

Who do you think are the Republican frontrunners?

At this point, it looks as if Rick Perry and Mitt Romney are emerging as two poten­tial nom­i­nees, but nobody can tell you what’s going to happen. When I was run­ning, I was at zero in the polls and it was a marathon — a long, con­tentious effort that, when it came to the nom­i­na­tion, suc­ceeded for me. People know Romney, but they don’t know Perry. And who knows, there could be someone else, but it doesn’t look like it right now.

What does President Obama need to do to get re-elected? How tough of a fight is he facing?

It’s going to be tough, because the economy is always the dom­i­nant issue. If the economy was recov­ering in a rea­son­ably decent fashion right now, he’d be unbeat­able, but it isn’t. I think it’s clear, sadly, that Obama is going to get no coop­er­a­tion at all, cer­tainly from the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, in pushing for an expan­sionary eco­nomic policy, which is what in my opinion we need.

My own view is that he’s got to adopt Harry Truman’s 1948 approach and take on the Con­gress. I think he’s gone more than halfway — and then some — in trying to develop con­sensus, and I think people know that. What he’s got to do is lay out a plan and then hammer Con­gress to pass it. If they do, fine, and if they don’t, he needs to take it to the voters. At least then the people will know where he stands.

When you have this foolish fil­i­buster rule in the Senate and a Con­gress that will not budge, I think what you’ve got to do is throw down the gauntlet and say, “I’m not going to pre­side over this and I will not sign any budget of the kind that these people want to pass,” which is essen­tially what Pres­i­dent Clinton said. He needs to be very clear that if they want to pass that kind of budget, they’ll need to get them­selves another pres­i­dent. Obama needs to be very tough about that.

Richard Nixon, when he was still alive and Pres­i­dent George H. W. Bush was seeking re-​​election in 1992, was asked if an incum­bent pres­i­dent who was pre­siding over a poor economy would always be beaten. He said, “No, but you have to have a plan.” In other words, if people think you have a good idea of what you want to do and what will work over time, they may vote for you even though unem­ploy­ment is still high. That is what Obama tried to do the other night, and I thought he did a pretty good job of it.

How has the process of running for president changed since you campaigned in 1988?

I don’t know that it’s changed a great deal. I know that the media is 24 hours a day now, but most people do not sit there for 24 hours watching Fox News or CNN or any­thing else. Although there’s a lot more cov­erage in some ways, I don’t know how much of an impact there is on public opinion, except for the rel­a­tively small por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion that spends a lot of time fol­lowing this. How many of the 310 mil­lion people in this country spend a lot of time paying atten­tion to that? Bill O’Reilly has 4 mil­lion viewers, but that leaves you with 306 mil­lion people who aren’t paying atten­tion to him.

It still depends on a can­di­date who can artic­u­late who he is and what he wants to do and a first-​​rate grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion working hard — it’s not much dif­ferent now than it was in ’88.

- by Matt Collette


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