WASHINGTON — The last time there was an open race for the White House, in 2008, the question could have been why anybody would want the job. The economy was sinking into the worst crisis since the Great Depression. Thousands of U.S. troops were deployed in two wars that commanded declining public support.
Amid early jockeying for the 2016 election — precisely 1,000 days away as of Wednesday — presidential hopefuls face what is shaping up to be a very different landscape.
The economy is recovering steadily, if slowly. Unemployment, while still troubling, is declining — to 6.6% last month, the lowest since October 2008. The federal budget deficit has dropped from its peak by nearly two-thirds despite the failure to reach a long-sought Grand Bargain. The auto industry has regained its footing, and big banks no longer seem threatened with collapse. U.S. combat troops are out of Iraq and will head out of Afghanistan by the end of the year.
2016 RACE: Presidential prospects
After more than a decade of hyper-charged presidential elections that turned on war, terrorism and economic calamity, the 2016 contest just might reflect a return to the previous order. It might look something like the election in 2000, when the economy was growing, the country was at relative peace in the world and partisanship was high.
"Barack Obama came in under the most adverse circumstances we've seen in more than half a century," says Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. "Certainly there are problems now, but it's kind of night and day in terms of the circumstances that the next president comes into office with — a much more positive, less frightening time."
That might make the job of president seem less daunting and the field of presidential candidates bigger, especially on the Republican side, where the race for the nomination is wide open. (Although those who run for president typically aren't plagued by self-doubt about their abilities, including when times were tough in 2008.) It could make it easier for voters to consider supporting someone who is relatively new to politics — such as a first-term senator (Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas) or a governor who has never worked in Washington (Scott Walker of Wisconsin). It might encourage former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who declined to run in 2008 and 2012, to jump in.
And it means the 2016 campaign is likely to turn on a wider range of issues — from education and infrastructure to the environment and abortion rights — than the laser focus in recent campaigns on catastrophe.
President Obama's agenda, especially during his first months, was defined by crises not of his making, from the automakers' plea for a bailout to Pentagon appeals for more troops in Afghanistan. The return to more traditional politics, still hard-fought but without such a cataclysmic edge, could mean a different experience for his successor.
"The next president may very well have more of an opportunity to enact an agenda instead of just reacting to circumstances," says Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, a senior strategist in Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign.
'STILL ROUGH TERRITORY'
That said, the next president is sure to face serious challenges.
In an interview with USA TODAY in 2008, former California congressman and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta said the president being elected that fall would "face a set of crises that no president has had to face in modern times." He ended up joining the Obama administration, first as CIA director and then as Defense secretary.
And now? "In terms of some of those major challenges, the country, I think, is in a better place," Panetta says. But "it's still rough territory for anybody."
Start with the deficit. Last week, the Congressional Budget Office projected the deficit for the current fiscal year would decline to $514 billion, about one-third the size it was in 2009, and dip even lower next year. About the time the next president is elected, the budget shortfall will start to rise again, climbing back over $1 trillion in 2024.
"The president coming in in 2016 — assume he or she lasts to 2024," serving two terms, says Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "That's right in the middle of the retirement storm."
Analysts have warned for years about an impending crisis for Social Security and Medicare when the huge Baby Boom generation began to retire. "We're there," says Mark Zandi, chief economist with Moody's Analytics. "The boomers are retiring en masse, so the pressures on the programs will significantly intensify. Unlike in times past where it was still in theory, this is for real."
Policymakers have failed to seal a deal on the mix of politically difficult steps that a fix is likely to involve: increasing taxes, curbing benefits, raising the retirement age. The next president presumably will no longer have the option of delay.
He or she is likely to face the same partisanship that has made it difficult for Obama to get appointments confirmed and initiatives enacted. "Almost certainly governance in America will be divided and polarized and marginally functional, if that," says Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin. "I'm not optimistic that we will have a new birth of consensus and compromise in America."
A desire to move past all that helped fueled Obama's rise 10 years ago. He was cheered at the 2004 Democratic Convention when he declared "there is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America." Now, even after two victorious campaigns of his own, he faults unyielding Republicans for making it impossible to break the partisan fever.
A candidate who seemed better equipped to deliver on that promise could appeal to voters frustrated with dysfunction. The quick rise of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — before his sudden fall over the George Washington Bridge furor — was due in part to the sense that he had won the support of a cross-section of voters in the Garden State and had worked across party lines, including with Obama, to help his constituents in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
"A lot of trust has been lost in terms of the ability of our democracy to be able to govern," Panetta says, "and clearly there remains a lot of political gridlock still in place. I think the bigger challenge for whoever runs for president is going to be more issues related to the spirit of America. Can that person return a certain sense of confidence that this country can make things better for its people?"
Faith in the system might be rebuilt by someone with the ability to reshape or at least more effectively navigate a political system that often eschews compromise or even conversation across party lines.
A DOER OVER A DREAMER?
In the right-place-right-time theory of politics, the moment matters.
Jimmy Carter, a one-term governor of Georgia, was elected president in 1976 amid a thirst for morality in the aftermath of President Richard Nixon's resignation over the Watergate scandal. Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 with an I-feel-your-pain appeal to voters anxious about the economy and their futures after President George H.W. Bush seemed more focused on foreign policy, especially the Persian Gulf War.
In 2016, the political times may favor a doer over a dreamer, a manager over a visionary. Light predicts voters will look for "a little less drama" in the next president — that is, fewer "grand plans" and more "repair and remodeling" for programs and problems. Walker says the managerial skills of governors such as him equip them to the tasks of a president.
Garin, who was a senior strategist for Hillary Rodham Clinton during her 2008 presidential bid, describes an ideal candidate who sounds a lot like her. The former secretary of State hasn't announced her plans, but her dominant standing in Democratic polls has discouraged most other Democrats from publicly weighing the race until she does.
"People think about the challenges that President Obama faced, and they put a little bit more emphasis on prior experience," Garin says. "While there's a general revulsion with Washington, the political waters will be a little safer for somebody who has a demonstrated ability to make Washington work."
If no foreign policy or financial crisis claims center stage, there could be room for other issues to emerge. Education and infrastructure repair, overshadowed recently, could get more attention, Newhouse says. Zandi suggests the debate over social issues such as abortion rights and marijuana legalization could reignite.
To be sure, it's perilous to predict what the political landscape will look like in two years, when the opening Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary will be held. "It's pretty hard in the beginning of 2014 to be confident that we won't be in a crisis atmosphere," Garin cautions. "There are a lot of danger spots in the world."
"Almost for sure there will be events between now and then that will scramble things," Zandi says. "Who knows?"