The cardinal sin of political prognostication is static analysis.
A little over a week ago, the emerging wisdom was that President Obama's re-election was in peril. The House Republican whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., perhaps the most politically attuned elected member of his party, was saying that while he always believed Republicans would have a good year in 2012, he now thought it was likely Obama would be defeated.
Leading Democratic strategists and poll takers worried he might be right. Comparisons were tossed out to Jimmy Carter more than three decades before: a bad economy and an indecisive president. That was April 30. By the end of May 1, the narrative turned around: Obama, achieving what President Bush and his crowd of American exceptionalists couldn't, bagged Osama bin Laden.
The president now was invincible, crowed some Democrats. Republicans publicly cheered and privately despaired, as their party's front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, was asked if the incumbent was unbeatable. On InTrade, a market site to wager on outcomes, the odds of Obama's re-election exploded higher.
With decent odds, both times a smart investor would have sold short. The reality is that at the end of April, Obama was a slight favorite to win re-election; after the first day of May his odds were only marginally better.
Before the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Republicans had two cases against Obama: He's presiding over a lousy economy and spending like an inebriated sailor; the other was that he's soft on terrorism, a cautious, multilateralist who's imperiling U.S. security.
He was bold, decisive and successful in contrast with the Bush crowd's fumbling when bin Laden was a target at Tora Bora three months after the Sept. 11 attacks. Obama eliminated the second leg of the Republican case.
History, however, shows how ephemeral foreign-policy triumphs are in democracies. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill led the allies to victory in World War II. The Brits threw Churchill out of office in 1945 and Americans turned the House of Representatives over to the Republicans in 1946.
More recently, Carter achieved a notable foreign policy success with the 1978 Camp David accords; George H.W. Bush scored big with the first Iraq war. Both were defeated for re-election.
Obama's political advisers realize this, and their strategy is simple: The election is about the future — their constant refrain of "Win the Future" is sophomoric, yet repetition works in messaging. The second mantra is that Republicans are extreme, scary. Defense of the Obama record will be minimal. The economy will dominate other issues including terrorism (barring a new event), bin Laden or social issues; the May 6 jobs report, showing robust employment gains, was a welcome bookend for the best week in Obama's presidency in a long time. The conversation in the fall of next year will be about jobs, gas prices, debt and the role of government.
The Democrats are trying to "create a narrative," says House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., "if you go to the Republicans they're going to feed you to the wolves in a dog-eat-dog society."
This "narrative of shared scarcity," Ryan says, will be trumped by the Republican storyline. "We want to have growth. We want an upwardly mobile society."
Obama is equally confident he can win the fairness and growth debate by emphasizing selective investments for the future.
Democrats believe the tide already is starting to turn in their favor. Only six months after a historic electoral victory, public attitudes about the Republicans continue to sour as the party is identified with cutting Medicare, defending the oil industry and embracing divisive social issues. The presidential nominating fight, the White House calculates, will only exacerbate those deficiencies. The nominee will have to pander to the party's powerful conservative base, they argue, and the field, by historical standards, looks comparatively weak.
That's why Republicans such as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and the former Utah governor and Obama envoy to China, Jon Huntsman, are seriously thinking about getting in. They might be formidable general-election candidates. Even more formidable are the odds against them navigating the caucuses and primaries to get the chance.
Team Obama isn't without its own problems. Even with major jobs gains last month, the unemployment rate is at 9 percent; since World War II no president has been re-elected with joblessness anywhere near that level. Although Obama, unlike Carter in 1980, won't face a serious challenge from the left, he still has to worry about the unrest among his liberal base, sure to be aggravated if he slows down troop withdrawals from Afghanistan this summer.
There are political uncertainties ahead. This was a mission accomplished.