You might think the 2012 presidential campaign will get underway on the morning of Nov. 3, when both parties survey the results of the midterm elections. But I think it is safe to say that the race for the White House has already begun.
President Obama got things started earlier this month with his heavily publicized speech in Cleveland, in which he attacked the Republican opposition and criticized House Minority Leader John Boehner, by name, eight times.
On the surface, Obama’s speech was about maintaining his party’s control of Congress. The president framed his criticisms as a response to a speech Boehner had given a few weeks earlier. “There were no new policies from Mr. Boehner,” the president said. “There were no new ideas. There was just the same philosophy we already tried for the last decade — the same philosophy that led to this mess in the first place.”
Obama also sought to reframe the debate over whether and how to extend the Bush-era tax cuts that are scheduled to expire at the end of the year. Instead of directly addressing whether tax increases on high earners might harm the still fragile economy, Obama focused on how Republicans’ insistence on retaining lower rates for all taxpayers was putting the rates for middle-income people in jeopardy by holding up congressional action. “Let me be clear to Mr. Boehner and everyone else: we should not hold middle-class tax cuts hostage any longer,” the president said.
The tactic proved effective, prompting Boehner to suggest in a CBS interview that he might be willing to give up on extending lower tax rates for high-earners if that was the only way to ensure that Congress would pass legislation to keep rates low for those earning less. Boehner’s remarks led to dissent and uncertainty within the Republican Party.
In the process of positioning his party for the immediate battle, Obama was also attacking a potential high-profile opponent in a crucial swing state.
As of the beginning of this month, 39 percent of Americans had never heard of Boehner, according to a CNN poll. But if Republicans manage to take control of the House, as I expect they will, Boehner will be in line to become speaker, a position that would put him firmly in the national spotlight. In 1994, when a midterm rout established Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House, he quickly became a vocal counterweight to then-President Bill Clinton. Boehner could find himself in the same position.
Gingrich ultimately didn’t emerge as a challenger to Clinton in the 1996 presidential elections, largely due to his combative and abrasive nature, which made it easy for Clinton and his allies to demonize him. Boehner, however, is unlikely to make himself such an easy target. He already has a strong reputation as a relatively easy-going congressional leader. He also has a record as a deficit hawk, providing a potentially valuable contrast to Obama, who, voters are coming to fear, is well on his way to emptying the national purse.
Boehner also has the advantage of being from Ohio, a critical swing state. The candidate who takes Ohio usually takes the White House. Gingrich, on the other hand, represented Georgia, a state the Republicans could count on winning even without a favorite-son advantage.
I am not the only observer who is already thinking of Boehner as a potential presidential candidate. An Irish betting website considers Boehner to be the fourth most likely person to win the GOP nomination, behind Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee.
By attacking Boehner now, while he is still relatively unknown, Obama may be trying to introduce Americans to Boehner in an unfavorable light. Washington Post political blogger Chris Cillizza recently highlighted Obama’s attempts to draw attention to Boehner, commenting, “Defining him as early as possible...could work in the White House's favor as President Obama will be looking for a foil (ala [sic] Bill Clinton and Gingrich in the mid 1990s) to help him make his case to the American people in 2012.”
A senior Democratic Party official quoted by Cillizza insisted that Obama’s interest in Boehner has nothing to do with the presidential elections. “It's about 2010, not 2011,” he said.
But, while Obama certainly has the midterm elections at the front of his mind, he is also undoubtedly considering his own political survival. History may record his speech in Ohio as the president’s first appearance on the 2012 presidential campaign trail.