Will the Fiscal Donkey Fly?
Will Barack Obama become a “one-termer” like somewhat recent Presidents, Democrat Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) and Republican George H.W. Bush #41 (1989-1993)? Or will Obama get the Democratic donkey off the ground like Bill Clinton managed to do after the 1994 mid-term election when Republican Newt Gingrich spearheaded the Contract with America, which led to a similar Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Clinton’s approval ratings were in the dumps at the time, comparable to voter’s current lackluster opinion of Obama and his spending spree (see also Profitless Healthcare).
Similarly, Republican Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) was picking up the pieces with his lousy approval rating after the 1982 midterm election. Tax cuts, “trickle-down” supply side economics, and a tough stance on the Russian Cold War turned around the economy and his approval rating and catapulted him to reelection in a landslide victory. Reagan carried 49 states with the help of Reagan Democrats (one-quarter of registered Democrats voted for him).
One should be clear though, popularity is not the only factor that plays into reelection success. George H. W. Bush had the highest average approval rating in five decades (60.9% approval), only superseded by John F. Kennedy (70.1% approval). The economy, international politics, and other external factors also play a large role in the reelection process.
Flying Donkey Time?
If President Obama wants to get the Democratic donkey off the ground and raise his current approval rating of 47% and remedy his self-admitted “shellacking” by the Republicans, then he will need to shift his hard-left political agenda more towards the middle, like Clinton did in 1994. If he leads on ideology alone, then the next two years will likely be a long tough slog for him and his Democratic colleagues.
In order to shift toward the center and gain more Independent voters, Obama will need to find common ground with Republicans and Tea-Partiers. Obama has already conceded in principle to extend the Bush tax cuts, but if he wants to gain more political capital, he will have to gain some ground in the area of fiscal responsibility. With the help of a strong economy, Clinton managed to run surpluses, but front and center today is a $1.3 trillion deficit and over $13 trillion in debt. The first step in building any credibility on the issue will come on December 1st when the president’s bi-partisan commission for deficit reduction will release its report.
It will be interesting which party will show leadership in making unpopular spending cuts, just as the 2012 re-election cycle just begins. The elephants in the room are the entitlements (Medicare and Social Security), and although less talked about, efficient cuts to defense spending should be put on the table. Sure, pork barrel spending, inefficient subsidies, tax loopholes, are gaps that need to be filled, but they alone are rounding errors given our country’s unsustainable current circumstances. Whether or not politicians (red or blue) will point out the unpopular elephants in the room will be interesting to watch.
Financial irresponsibility at the consumer and corporate level were major drivers behind the 2008-2009 financial crisis, and both individuals and businesses are responsibly adjusting their expense structures and balance sheets. Our government has to wake up to reality and adjust its expense structure and balance sheet too. Although foreign countries have reacted (i.e., European austerity), egotistical American politicians on both sides of the aisle haven’t quite woken up and smelled the coffee yet. Thank goodness for the democracy that we live in because citizens are pointing to the elephants in the room and demanding reckless spending and debt levels to come under control. If President Barack Obama doesn’t want to become another one-termer, he’ll have to move more to the center and get the finances of our country under control. If the stubborn donkey refuses to deal with reality and remains flightless, hopefully an elephant or ship-full of tea partiers can get this grass roots call for fiscal sanity off the ground.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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