Why Obama's Not a Lock

President Obama is vulnerable when Republicans stop talking nonsense and turn to the economy

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Photo-Illustration by Matt Dorfman for TIME; Obama: Getty Images

The most telling moment in Barack Obama's 60 Minutes interview came when Steve Kroft asked for his reaction after he saw the photo of Osama bin Laden, shot in the head. "It was him," the President said. And that was all he said. Now, this was a classic TV how-did-you-feel question, and Obama had a range of possible options. He could have gone all political, "I thought of the families who had lost loved ones ..." Or graphic, "Well, it was pretty ugly, but ..." Or excited, "Oh. My. God." Or religious, "Thank God." Or triumphal, "My first thought, actually, Steve, was 'Hasta la vista, baby.' " But, of course, this is Barack Obama, more Gregory Peck than John Wayne. And the same taciturn, hyperdisciplined quality that is so frustrating when he seems unable to connect with the economic anguish of the American people came across as just right, perfectly Midwestern — Kansas, not Hawaii, much less Kenya.

A few days earlier, five of the Republican candidates for President gathered in South Carolina for their first official debate. It was a weird show, newsworthy only because Congressman Ron Paul came out in favor of legalizing heroin, cocaine and prostitution. Many of the more serious (Mitt Romney, Mitch Daniels, Newt Gingrich) and less serious (Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich) Republican candidates weren't there — and so it would be unfair to compare the Republican punytude with the massive presidentiality of Obama during his strongest week.

Three relevant observations can be made, however. First, Paul's willingness to go off the libertarian deep end, without a blink, says something about the ideological extremism that has overwhelmed the Republicans in recent years. Paul is certainly further out than most, but all sorts of loony notions have become accepted wisdom in the Republican Party — about taxation, about the science of climate change, about the utter perfection of markets. Which leads to the second observation: even the serious Republican candidates aren't very. Romney refuses to take credit for his greatest accomplishment as governor of Massachusetts — a universal health care plan that works. There are grounds to hope that Indiana's Governor Daniels and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman will not make fools of themselves, but it is hard to imagine either of them prospering by challenging the conventional Limbaugh wisdom of the party, and Daniels has already gotten into trouble by proposing that there should be a truce on "social issues" like abortion and homosexuality.

But my third reaction to the Republican debate cuts in the opposite direction. By depriving the Republicans of the birth-certificate and tough-on-terrorism issues in a single week, Obama may ultimately force them to spend most of their time discussing the weakest point of his presidency: the economy. My colleague Mark Halperin has observed that when Trump talks about something other than the President's birth certificate (or himself), he strikes some very resonant chords. He wants to slap tariffs on the Chinese, and he's mad as hell about gasoline prices (and wants to seize the Iraqi oil fields). This is the other side of the President's reserve: he won't demagogue those issues, or even talk about them very much.

I came into presidential politics with Jimmy Carter, and I'll never forget his staff's derision of a certain washed-up actor-extremist from California named Ronald Reagan. Similarly, I remember the Democratic Party's despair in 1992, especially after Bill Clinton was linked, lubriciously, to a lounge singer named Gennifer Flowers. Carter had brought Israel and Egypt together. George H.W. Bush had beaten Saddam Hussein and retaken Kuwait; his popularity rating stood at 90%. But both Carter and Bush were beaten by a bum economy.

Obama could lose too, even to someone who seems silly to fusty opinionators like me. He could lose if he keeps playing on the Republican field — deficits — rather than in the arena preferred by most Americans: the sputtering economy. He needs some big, new, easy-to-understand economic initiatives. He could lose if he doesn't remind the public that he cut their taxes, as promised, and their Medicare drug bills. He also has to prove that, despite the bailouts, he's not Wall Street's sucker.

There is a grand history of populist loudmouths like Trump making an early impression in presidential campaigns: Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson and Howard Dean all had their moments. And so did John McCain, who lost his shot in 2008 when the financial crisis came and he didn't know how to react. Obama was calm under fire then, and ever since. It is why he's likely to be re-elected: we prefer Presidents who are adults over those who are angry. But he is certainly not a lock.