The Opportunity Of Not Being Obama

J.T. Young Former Treasury Department and OMB Official
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The adage “you can’t beat something with nothing” may be tested this November. With the president’s popularity plummeting, Republicans may be in a position where not being Obama is enough. If so, resisting hypocritical media pressure to take policy positions on controversial issues in the next four months may be more than a plausible strategy, it could be their best one.

Simply not being an unpopular opponent is hardly an unusual strategy in American politics – or an unsuccessful one. It has worked in several notable cases and in two very recent ones, one involving the current president.

In 1932, with the nation in the three-year throes of yawning Depression, Democrats only had to not be Hoover. FDR did it perfectly and won a landslide. In 1968, with America sliding into a morass in Vietnam’s jungles, Rep. Eugene McCarthy was never a serious alternative to LBJ, but he did not have to be. He simply needed to not be LBJ. His message delivered, LBJ, who had been a blowout winner four years before, was a bow-out this time.

We don’t have to look back too far to see how well the “not being” strategy worked.  Just look at Obama in 2008 – he pulled it off not once, but twice.

Facing the seemingly preordained president Hillary Clinton in the primaries, Obama took advantage of the cleavages she had created within her own party. The focus was not the freshman senator, who had served just half if his first term, but Hillary who had been at the center of the national stage for over a decade.

Perhaps the ultimate determinant in that nomination fight was Hillary’s vote for the Iraq war – a vote Obama never had to take, because he was not in the Senate at the time. It was the very epitome of the “not being” strategy.

The nomination was so big, and its loss so stinging to Hillary, because “not being” Bush looked a sure bet for the White House. With the economy in a deepening downturn, two wars still being waged, and the general fatigue that comes from a party holding the presidency for two terms, “not being” was the Democrats’ ticket. Again, Obama – on a platitudinous platform of hope and change – punched that ticket to the Oval Office.

Ironically, we now come to a point where “not being” appears to be Republicans’ best strategy against Obama. On issue after issue, Obama is very negatively viewed by voters.

According to the latest Quinnipiac nationwide poll (released July 2, of 1,446 registered voters, MOE +/-2.6 percent), Obama’s overall approval rating is 40 percent to a 53 percent disapproval. On the economy, it is 40-55 percent; on health care, 40-58 percent; and on foreign policy 37-57. To underscore the injury, the poll also asked respondents to vote for the worst post-WWII president – here Obama led them all, besting Bush 33-28 percent.

There was never a better time to not be Obama.

Admittedly, trying to beat something with nothing is tough.  However being negative – as Obama is by so much on some many issues – is by definition to be below nothing.  In that case, “not being” is not just a strategy, but a rare opportunity.

“Not being” can work.  It has worked in the past.  And it has worked most recently for Obama himself, who owes his presidency to it.

Yes, in the longer-term, Republicans will have to take stands on tough issues.  This is something they are more than capable of and willing to do.  But right now, three months away from what could be another big midterm win, “not being” Obama could be just fine.

The author served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.