Steve Chapman

When Ronald Reagan ran for re-election in 1984, his slogan was "Morning in America." For Barack Obama, it's more like midnight in a coal mine.

The sputtering economy is about to stall out, unemployment is high, his jobs program may not pass, foreclosures are rampant, and the poor guy can't even sneak a cigarette.

His approval rating is at its lowest level ever. His party just lost two House elections -- one in a district it had held for 88 consecutive years. He's staked his future on the jobs bill, which most Americans don't think would work.

The vultures are starting to circle. Former White House spokesman Bill Burton said that unless Obama can rally the Democratic base, which is disillusioned with him, "it's going to be impossible for the president to win." Democratic consultant James Carville had one word of advice for Obama: "Panic."

But there is good news for the president. I checked the Constitution, and he is under no compulsion to run for re-election. He can scrap the campaign, bag the fundraising calls and never endure another Republican debate as long as he's willing to vacate the premises by Jan. 20, 2013.

That might be the sensible thing to do. It's hard for a president to win a second term when unemployment is painfully high. If the economy were in full rebound mode, Obama might win anyway. But it isn't, and it may fall into a second recession -- in which case voters will decide his middle name is Hoover, not Hussein. Why not leave of his own volition instead of waiting to get the ax?

It's not as though there is much enticement to stick around. Presidents who win re-election have generally found, wrote John Fortier and Norman Ornstein in their 2007 book, "Second-Term Blues," that "their second terms did not measure up to their first."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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