Political pundits looking for historical analogies to the 2012 Presidential election have offered up several ideas - for President Obama, many think he must channel the "give 'em hell" Harry Truman campaign of 1948, where the unpopular incumbent was able to make the Republican Congress his enemy and a bland, but otherwise unobjectionable opponent (New York Governor Tom Dewey) was rejected. Republicans like 1980, where a Democratic incumbent presiding over a weak economy was drummed out of office, heralding a decade plus run of conservative leadership. And while President Obama will never be mistaken with Truman's firebrand campaigning style and Mitt Romney is no one's idea of Ronald Reagan, precedent offers a certain facile comfort for the commentariat, which likes nothing more than linking the past to the present in an unbroken narrative chain of America's historical uniqueness.
But let me throw out another election that featured an unpopular incumbent presiding at a time of enormous strife in the country and where the people, who elected him with great hope and optimism, had soured on his leadership and become exhausted by the circumstances they found themselves in. Ladies and gentlemen - I bring you the Election of 1864. Yes, I realize, the single greatest cataclysm to our society (the Civil War) is not an "on all fours" comparison to our nagging economic downturn, but follow me.
President Lincoln was an enormously unpopular man in early 1864. The country had been at war for nearly four years and it did not look like there was an end in sight. A chance to seal off General Lee after Gettysburg had been squandered and the capture of Vicksburg and its importance to the overall prosecution of the war effort was not yet fully appreciated. Rumblings within his own party suggested that Lincoln should not stand for re-election and the opposition was led by General George McClellan, the former leader of Lincoln's own army and who was openly speaking of peace entreaties with the South to end the war.
So how was it that Lincoln, who doubted his own chances for re-election, wind up swamping McClellan, winning all but 2 of the states that voted that year and what can that tell us about ways in which 2012 might look like 1864? In contemporary terms, Lincoln's generals delivered several "game changers" that made the architecture of the Civil War look much different in November 1864 than it did at the beginning of the year. Grant, who had patiently laid siege to Vicksburg, finally taking it as, in a wonderful historical twist, Lee was retreating from Gettysburg, was given overall command of Union forces with a clear mandate to cut off Lee and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant doggedly (and at the cost of tens of thousands of lives) tracked Lee through Virginia, in a long, desperate war of attrition, that, by November, found Grant within sniffing distance of Richmond.
Meanwhile, General William Sherman was methodically rolling through the deep South, from Chattanooga to Atlanta and onward to the sea, leaving behind him nothing but razed cities and destroyed countryside. Lastly, General Phil Sheridan and his troops in the Shenandoah Valley were able to press the advantage to close the final pincers around the Confederate Army. In short, these three generals validated Lincoln's decision-making and helped ensure his re-election. By November, although the war was not over, the end was in sight. Moreover, Lincoln retained the good will of the troops he commanded and McClellan's ignoble departure from military service looked like a far greater liability as the year progressed than it did at its start.
So how can our current President draw inspiration from one of his political heroes? Again, I am not suggesting that our economic situation is identical to the Civil War; however, it is, by a wide margin, the biggest issue of the day, and, along with the steady drumbeat of deficit and debt that goes hand in hand with it, casts a pall over any discussion of domestic politics. Further, Congressional Republicans, who have made it sport to block every single piece of the President's agenda (not to mention political appointees - most recently, the "Public Printer," who had to be recess appointed) do not seem inclined toward compromise. A huge piece of the President's first term legislative agenda hangs in the balance as the Supreme Court considers the Affordable Care Act and any number of foreign policy challenges including Iran, North Korea, Russia and the Middle East, could bubble to the surface and completely dominate the media narrative at a moment's notice.
The President needs to take a page from Lincoln and go on the offensive, not just in rhetoric, but in deed and secure the game changers that Lincoln's generals produced for him in 1864. On the economic front, he must continue to push for investments in infrastructure and other parts of the American Jobs Act, working in concert with Congressional Democrats publicly, and Republicans privately, to get through parts (if not all) of that jobs package. For example, the President should take a page from the Republican playbook and demand votes on the Jobs Act as part of the payroll tax cut extension debate that will start just after New Year's. Congressional Republicans claim the need for a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline is required to spur job growth, why not up the ante and get needed infrastructure funding included as well?
More importantly, the President should continue pushing for a common sense long-term deficit agreement that locks in higher tax rates for wealthy individuals and eliminates corporate loopholes with as little sacrifice in entitlement programs as possible. While steady job growth or the complete elimination of the Bush tax cuts would do the same job of reducing our long-term deficit problem, the former is not guaranteed and the latter is not politically feasible (or advisable). The President has an opportunity to re-make tax policy in a way that is more progressive, collects more revenue and is framed in a way that can draw broad public support, boxing Republicans into a corner of either wholesale rejection or defending the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. While some might argue that Republicans will not deal, consider that the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate is up for re-election. Republicans have just as much of a stake in showing progress and movement forward to get re-elected as the President does.
Ironically, one of the President's best friends this year may end up being the Supreme Court. Forgetting for a minute how it might rule on other contentious issues like immigration and Congressional redistricting, no matter how the Supreme Court rules on the Affordable Care Act, the President will be able to claim victory. If the Court upholds the law, that is the final word and implementation (which is already taking place and to great effect, another story the President will need to tell) will move forward. If he loses, people will be harmed because they will be unable to gain access to needed care, but if anything, it will strengthen the President's mandate to find solutions to get to universal coverage and will also take a key point of contention off the political battlefield. I'm not one to sacrifice good policy for good politics, but either way, "health care" will be resolved by June.
On the foreign front, the President will benefit if he is proactive. Having already wracked up the killing of Bin Laden, the complete withdrawal from Iraq and support for liberation movement across the Middle East, the President should look to make an aggressive push along foreign policy fronts that can bear fruit. Whether it is working more closely with China to address North Korea, pushing for a peace treaty in Afghanistan or squeezing the sanctions vice around Iran ever tighter, the President's free hand to conduct foreign policy is a natural place to "go big" in an effort to achieve a major breakthrough. It's not for nothing that Nixon's visit to China occurred during his re-election campaign in 1972.
While our country's economic footing looks uncertain as 2012 dawns, consider how the country will look like in November 2012 if the economy strengthens, unemployment continues to go down, a comprehensive, long-term deficit deal is signed that includes higher taxes for wealthy Americans, an end to corporate loopholes and ensures the solvency of entitlement programs for decades, health care is off the table politically, and some combination of the continued expansion of Arab democratic movements, addressing/dealing with Iran, drawing down in Afghanistan or (another moon shot) an actual peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians is within reach. A President campaigning on that kind of record would make 1864, (or 1984 for that matter) look like a much closer electoral antecedent than anything currently being discussed.