Jacob Heilbrunn

Why Romney Can Win In November

President Obama, as the New York Times notes, is trying to steal a page from the 1984 Reagan playbook by announcing that America is "back." But is it? America is no longer recumbent, but to view it as fully ambulatory doesn't wash, either. Housing is in the doldrums. And the electorate remains restive and uncertain about America's future prospects. So as Doyle McManus argues in the Los Angeles Times, it's hopelessly premature to conclude that the presidential race is over before it even really began. The race, like most presidential races in recent memory, is bound to tighten. And Romney, if he plays his cards right, has a chance of winning it.

The ebullience among Democrats is new. It derives from an unemployment rate that's going down and a stock market that's going in the opposite direction. Republicans such as Karl Rove counter that Obama continues to enjoy low popularity ratings—lower than any president who has won reelection has enjoyed. Rising gasoline prices—a gallon will likely hit $5 this summer—could also blight Obama's reelection chances, particularly since they allow the GOP to float the narrative of a detached, elitist commander-in-chief whose environmental views make him view high gas prices as a positive boon since they discourage consumption. But if the economy continues to improve markedly, it will definitely be difficult for Romney to make his central case, which is that Obama has plunged America's fiscal house into disorder and that he's the man to straighten out the mess.

Yet Obama is already touting America's progress as the principal case for his reelection. This may well be premature. If Israel attacks Iran, for example, it would wreak havoc on the world economy. Current gas prices would seem like a bargain. Economies around the world might be plunged into a new Great Depression. Romney would probably have a twofer: he could accuse Obama of having bungled the war (in whatever form it takes), and he could lambaste Obama for destroying the economy.

If more sober heads prevail in Israel and America, Romney will still have plenty of ammunition. Obama's health-care bill remains a juicy target (though if the GOP fails to win the presidency in 2012, health care will become an increasingly popular program as it becomes an established part of the government). And if Iran is left unmolested, Romney will surely pummel Obama for being a weakling in foreign affairs, a commander who is afraid of commanding. Finally, as McManus points out,

One more poll number that's important: the percentage of Americans who think the country is heading in the wrong direction. Those numbers are still markedly high—about 59% on average—despite the recent signs of economic recovery. That's bad news for any president who's seeking reelection; it means there's an opportunity for a challenger to make a case that he can do better.

All in all, it will be a daunting summer and fall for Romney. But he has already shown that he is undaunted by the battery of attacks that he has absorbed from his Republican competitors for the presidential nomination. Romney is not a great candidate. But it doesn't require greatness to win in 2012. It takes something that Romney's Republican adversaries conspicuously lack—a sober demeanor and a cool head. Romney has displayed both. The squabbling and brickbats of the Republican primary will be long forgotten by the time Romney makes his acceptance speech in Tampa Bay this summer—assuming he racks up solid wins on Super Tuesday. But that doesn't seem like such a big if now that Rick Santorum has turned into a national scold.

Obama's reelection prospects look far more promising than they did a few months ago. But the very speed with which he has rebounded suggests why he should be cautious about his prospects. Romney remains the most formidable foe that the GOP could nominate.

Image: Gage Skidmore