Based on his record alone, the president should be, at best, a long shot for re-election. The stock market is tanking. Unemployment remains stubbornly high. Poverty is on the rise. Washington seems adrift. To many, Obama's current crusade on behalf of the American Jobs Act looks more like a cynical campaign ploy than a serious effort to get the country working again.
Even if you hold his diehard partisan opponents responsible for the mess, as I do, it's hard to make a really convincing case for a second Obama term. Until, that is, you consider most of the alternatives. And then all of a sudden, Obama starts looking like a shoo-in.
If I were a Republican strategist, I'd call an immediate halt to the presidential debates, like the one Thursday night, before the wacky — even bat-dung crazy — performances by most of the candidates completely destroy any chance the GOP might have of regaining the White House. The more these guys and gal talk, the better Obama's chances.
Let's be frank. Only one of the would-be leaders of the free world who appeared on that stage Thursday night has even a glimmer of what it takes to do the job. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is an ignorant oaf, laughably unready for prime time. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum are wild-eyed crazies. Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman and new entrant Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, are nonentities.
That leaves the ever-flexible ex-Massachusetts Gov. Milt Romney as the only man standing with a realistic chance of offering a better alternative to Obama. The danger, from a Republican point of view, is that the longer he stands next to his far-out fellow GOP candidates, the more likely he will be contaminated by their contagious extremism. He has to find a way to separate himself from this loony crowd before they drag him down, along with the GOP's chances.
The depth of Romney's problem with the extreme right was illustrated during Thursday night's debate by a remark from Bachmann. Mirroring the belief of Tea Party fanatics who will play an outsized role in the GOP's nominating process, she declared that because of Obama's weakness, Republicans need not move to the electoral center in order to oust him.
"President Obama has the lowest public approval ratings of any president in modern times," Bachmann shrilly intoned. "He hasn't gone to the basement yet. It'll be a lot lower than what it is now. That's why we need to choose a candidate who represents conservatives and constitutional conservative positions."
That's exactly what Obama is praying for: that he will get to run against a Republican champion who believes the nonsense that Bachmann throws out about the dangers of vaccinations, or Perry's hooey about Social Security, states' rights and alleged scams about global warming. The president would like nothing better than a rerun of Lyndon Johnson's battle against Barry Goldwater, whose ultraright convictions were far out of touch with the mainstream.
What he doesn't want is a serious dissection of the economic slump that has persisted on his watch from an opponent who actually stands a chance of luring fed-up independents and disappointed Democrats to unseat him. That's exactly what Romney (who has impressive credentials as a businessman and did some good things as governor that he is now trying to run away from) could give him, if he weren't immersed in a pandering contest with his nutty opponents. He may be forced to say crazy stuff to win the nomination that he can't shuck off when and if he faces Obama.
That would be a tragedy, denying the U.S. the serious and substantive debate it needs about the best way to pull itself out of the muck and build a better future for its increasingly desperate citizens. We need a real competition of ideas between the best-qualified contenders, not a clown show like Thursday's Republican debate.
Jack White is a frequent contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.