In a much quoted New Republic column, William Galston drew a distinction between two kinds of elections: a choice and a referendum. If I read him correctly, 2008 was a choice. With no incumbent running for reelection, the voters had to choose between two sets of promises. This year the election will be a referendum. Voters will essentially be deciding whether or not to give Barack Obama four more years. If they decide that he does not, then Mitt Romney only has to present himself as a modestly alternative. Galston lays out a number of reasons why the referendum might be difficult for Obama.
There is a little truth to this, but only a little. It is true that in 2008 Obama has the luxury of running without a record. The same was not true, however, of John McCain. McCain had not only to make a case for himself; he had to bear the burden of voter anger at George W. Bush. The last presidential election was as much a referendum on Bush as it was a choice between a war hero and hope and change.
Likewise, in 2004 Bush was running with a lot of baggage. However, he managed to turn the election into a referendum on his challenger. Kerry was never able to decide exactly what he was offering the voters except for being "not-Bush", and in that year it wasn't enough. The Obama campaign is busy trying to do the same thing to Mitt Romney.
I find it interesting that a lot of Obama's defenders took issue with the referendum thesis more than the list of Obama weaknesses. Ed Kilgore, also in the New Republic, argues that the election is not just a referendum on Obama.
A more nuanced version of the referendum hypothesis holds that challengers to even the weakest incumbents must cross some threshold of credibility before achieving victory.
That supports my argument about 2004. Joe Klein argues at Time that this election is indeed a choice, not a referendum. Because we end up knowing more about the candidates for president than we do in virtually any other election, presidential contests are virtually always more choice than referendum.
In the end, though, presidential elections are about character, not policies. That is why Obama has a good chance to be reelected this year–people may disagree with or be disappointed by him, but they see him as smart and solid and decent. Mitt Romney may trump that in the debates this October, but for now he is perceived, especially by women, as inconstant and insensitive.
Chris Weigant at the HuffPo attacks the choice/referendum dichotomy as a distinction without a difference.
In case you've just returned from an expedition to Mars and haven't heard this formulaic nonsense before, allow me to explain what it is supposed to mean. A "referendum" election means that the voters, en masse, will decide that it doesn't matter who the Republican candidate is; they will be voting solely on how they feel Barack Obama has done in his first term. A "choice" election means that voters, again as a monolithic group, will contemplate the two major-party nominees and decide which of them would be the better president. Using this "logic," the Republicans hope it'll be a referendum, and the White House hopes it will be a choice.
It bears noting that this question was in play well before Galston's piece was published or Rick Santorum withdrew from the Republican contest. Katrina vanden Heuvel insisted last January that
The president should be pleased that his Republican challengers are making the race into a choice rather than just a referendum on the economy. Most Americans will readily agree that returning to the Bush policies doesn't offer a way out.
Let's review. Kilgore points out that Romney has to meet a minimum "threshold of credibility" as a not-Obama for the referendum to work. Klein thinks that it's a choice and that Obama can win because voters think he is a splendid fellow. Ms. vanden Heuvel thinks that Obama can win because the Republicans are turning the race into a referendum on Bush. What is the pattern here?
Weigant hit the nail on the head, even if he was wasn't aiming at the nail. Republicans hope the election will be a referendum on Obama. The Obama campaign desperately hopes that it will be a referendum on Romney. What everyone seems to agree on is that if the election becomes a referendum on Obama, his ass is oatmeal.
Obama's record is dreadful. We are suffering through the slowest, most anemic economic recovery on record. It will be years before we recover the jobs lost, if indeed we do. We have been running deficits of more a trillion a year since Obama took office.
It is not just the economy, stupid. It's the stupid priorities. Obama's one significant legislative achievement, ObamaCare, remains deeply unpopular. Michael Hirsh, writing at the National Journal, explains why this is so problematic.
President Obama pushed through a historic health care law. But in so doing Obama downplayed the historic nature of the economic crisis he had inherited, and the historic depths of anger in the country caused by it. Never mind the polls (which seem to be coming out by the minute now): if Obama is defeated in November, that will probably be why.
This is one of the most salient points to come out of a fascinating exit interview given to New York magazine by retiring Rep. Barney Frank, one of the most dominant House members in recent decades and generally a dogged ally of the president. Frank says he now regrets Obama's decision to focus on comprehensive health care reform. "I think we paid a terrible price for health care," Frank said.
Hirsh goes on to show that the Administration badly underestimated the depth of the nation's economic problems. So Obama spent the sweet spot of his term in office getting something that Democrats care deeply about at the expense of the problem that the voters care most about.
We have already had a referendum on Democrats in general and Obama in particular. That was 2010. I don't know what is going to happen in November, but there seems to be a general if unstated agreement that Obama had better make sure it doesn't become a referendum on him.