A significant challenge in an incumbent president’s party is one of the classic harbingers of defeat — one of American University professor Allan Lichtman’s famous “13 keys” to the presidency.
Another, though, is waging an unpopular war or either scoring a major foreign policy victory or defeat. Afghanistan is unpopular and certainly represents a threat to Obama, who has no prospects of a foreign policy triumph.
The major factors, however, will be the economy and the quality of the GOP candidate.
President Ronald Reagan’s popularity was at 41 percent in 1982 when unemployment was at 9.7 percent, but he got triumphantly re-elected by bringing it down to 7 percent in 1984.
Clinton was at 42 percent with unemployment at 6.1 percent in 1994 and got re-elected with it at 5 percent.
President Jimmy Carter had a 50 percent approval rating in 1978 with unemployment at 6.1 percent. He was defeated when it was up to 7.1 percent — and amid the Iran hostage crisis, of course.
President George H.W. Bush had a 58 percent approval rating in 1990 with unemployment at 5.6 percent. He was defeated when it went up to 7.5 percent.
Obama is in treacherous territory with unemployment at 9.8 percent. His administration is forecasting improving that to only 8.5 percent by 2012. He had best do better than that.
Meantime, the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll indicates that Obama would beat former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) 55 percent to 33 percent but outpolls former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) 47 to 40.
The message is that the GOP needs to nominate someone who can appeal to independent voters in order to defeat Obama, and not a right-wing ideologue.