President Obama ran a successful campaign in 2008 against George W. Bush. Yes, yes, John McCain's name was on the ballot, but that was a detail. Obama campaigned against Bush. McCain even laughed about it at the Alfred E. Smith dinner, joking that Obama's "pet name for me" is "George Bush."
The president is hoping to reprise the same race in 2012. Speaking in Iowa last month, he said of Republicans: "They either want to do nothing at all or they want to double down on the same failed policies that got us into this mess."
So it's the anti-Bush campaign, version 2.0. Will it succeed? How can you run for re-election on the hope that voters won't notice you've been in the White House for four years? Some Democrats fondly recall Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1936 re-election. Roosevelt brought back the ghost of Herbert Hoover -- who would remain a prop of Democratic campaigns for two decades -- and campaigned vigorously against the rich, proposing an "undistributed profits tax" and a "wealth tax." He won by a landslide.
While we now know that the New Deal failed to end the Great Depression (and arguably prolonged and deepened it), 1936 voters lacked that perspective. The unemployment rate had been reduced from 24.9 percent in 1933 to 16.9 percent in 1936 and was continuing to decline during the election year. (It bounced up to 19 percent in 1938.) Under Obama's tenure, the unemployment rate spiked -- arguably, for reasons that predated Obama -- but has remained stubbornly high and is rising (very much attributable to Obama).
Unhappily for the president, voters are aware that he came to power with a House and Senate controlled by his party and that his agenda was duly enacted. When his policies failed to deliver on the promises of prosperity and growth, Obama undertook his protracted and creative search for scapegoats. We've been told that the economic policies of the Obama administration failed to deliver because a) the recession created by Bush's policies was deeper than anyone understood, b) Japan experienced a tsunami, c) the Arab Spring roiled the Middle East, d) ATMs have replaced bank tellers, e) Europe is facing a debt crisis, and f) Republicans refuse to pass his jobs bill.