By Begala, Paul
Newsweek , Vol. 159, No. 22
Byline: Paul Begala
Can Obama beat back the anti-incumbent fervor?
It stinks to be an incumbent officeholder these days. British Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party lost nearly 300 seats in local elections. Nicolas Sarkozy of France is now properly addressed as Monsieur le ex-President. His partner in austerity, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saw her Christian Democratic Union suffer what she called a "bitter, painful defeat" in the May 13 election. In Greece, the two major parties that have been running the country for decades were rejected by the voters. About the only elected world leaders who have been able to extend their hold on power are Russia's Vladimir Putin--whose party's recent victory was widely seen as fraudulent--and Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu--who cannily cut a deal to expand his governing coalition without an election. So unless you can rig an election or cancel it, you're in trouble as an incumbent.
Something big is going on.
The dirty little secret of campaigns is that there are usually just two messages. Either: Stay the Course or It's Time for a Change. When Barack Obama won 53 percent of the popular vote and carried 28 states, just 14 percent of Americans thought we were moving in the right direction. So it was obviously a Time for a Change election. When Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton coasted to easy reelections, the country's mood was undeniably Stay the Course. The election coming up in November is stuck in between. Americans don't know whether to forge ahead or swing back.
Quick readers' guide to the 2012 polls: until the final two weeks, ignore the head-to-head horserace. It's an artificial question: "If the election were held today, would you vote for Mitt Romney or Barack Obama?" You can almost hear the poor person on the other end of the phone saying, "It's only May. We don't know Romney's running mate or his platform. We haven't had debates or even a campaign."
Instead of obsessing about who's up and who's down, look at how folks view the direction of the country. When the "right direction" number creeps up close to 50 percent, the incumbent is going to win. But when it plunges, get ready to back the moving van up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. At this writing, that all-important indicator is a middling 31 percent--almost precisely equidistant from both an outright rejection of Obama and an incumbent's safe reelection. …