Several times in recent months, I have suggested that a political scenario could occur, a la Lyndon Johnson in 1968, whereby President Obama would choose not to run for a second term in 2012. I agree that such a scenario does not seem likely at the moment, but the economy is so fragile and, according to many respected economists, in such bad shape that in relatively short time the president’s support could, for all intents and purposes, evaporate. Although the international environment remains fragile as well, and Mr. Obama has had few real successes in this arena, I do not think foreign policy alone could motivate such a withdrawal. But what if the stock market took another nosedive, more banks failed, more U.S. industries faltered and most importantly, what little public confidence remained in the domestic economy turned to implacable pessimism? More bailouts are not an option. There is simply no money left for artificial techniques to keep investments and investors afloat. It would be an economic shipwreck in uncharted waters.
I want to stress that, at this moment, such a scenario seems remote. While the economy, and economic indicators are not good, in fact many are disturbing, this outcome would be so unprecedented that none of us, Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, those pro-Obama or anti-Obama wish it to happen. Everyone would suffer greatly if the economy took a dramatic downturn at this moment. Everyone.
That does not mean, however, that it cannot happen. The unfunded debt in the U.S. is alone a scary statistic, Most unnerving of all, most of the solutions to our economic problems put forward by Mr. Obama and his allies in Congress actually make our problems worse.
So if I may be permitted to speculate on a Lyndon Johnson-styled “retirement” by President Obama, I will ask the question: What then?
In 1968, President Johnson’s political decision was precipitated by the growing success of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar challenge to his renomination. Eventually, Senator Robert Kennedy sought the nomination. After Mr. Kennedy was assassinated, Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the race and eventually won the nomination, only to be defeated by Richard Nixon in the November election. Only when Mr. Humphrey broke with President Johnson on Vietnam, however, did he begin to rise in the polls. His comeback fell short, although many observers say that if he had another week, he would have won.
The first name that comes to mind as a replacement for Mr Obama would be Vice President Joe Biden, but Mr. Biden does not have the wide support that Mr. Humphrey had (after his distinguished career), nor could Mr. Biden credibly denounce the Obama economic policies, having been so much part of them.
The second name that comes to mind is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In 2008, Mrs. Clinton was the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency, Although very much part of the Obama foreign policy, she would not be closely associated with the president’s economic policy, and might be more credible if she denounced it.
Now we step outside the obvious Democratic names. In reality, if conditions became so bad that Mr. Obama had to withdraw, I think it would be more likely for the Democrats to name someone not part of the administration.
The first name that occurs to me is Senator Mark Warner of Virginia. He has been a governor as well as senator, and a successful businessman. A centrist Democrat, he would return the party to the Bill Clinton mode of governance. Mr. Warner was seriously mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2008, and clearly seems to have the gravitas for the Oval Office. A fresh face, and not associated with Mr. Obama, he could be a serious Democratic nominee in 2012 if Mr. Obama withdrew.
There are other figures in the Democratic Party who might be seriously considered in these circumstances. Although he has only been governor of New York for a short time, Mr. Cuomo has emerged as a centrist figure. He was a prominent attorney general of New York, and a cabinet office in the Clinton administration. His father Mario Cuomo was one of the iconic figures in the Democratic party in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and was himself prominently mentioned for president in 1988 and 1992.
After Mr. Cuomo, the list of possibilities lacks widespread recognition and experience. Some figures from the recent past, including Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Bob Kerry of Nebraska, could be considered, but would be unlikely nominees.
In terms of stature, temperament and experience, the Democrats, in the wake of an unexpected Obama withdrawal, would seem likely to turn to Mr. Warner. I’m sure he would deny any interest now, and I’m equally sure that most Democrats are not even considering the possibility, but I continue to think that the deterioration of the economy makes my speculation here worth filing in he back of the reader’s mind and consciousness.
We live in a time, and circumstances, when almost anything can happen.