As Mitt Romney continues his quest for the silver bullet that will wipe out all the deep reservations about his qualifications to be president, the man who still owns the job is demonstrating every day why incumbency gives him a major advantage in striving to keep it.
Last week, all other news was smothered by the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, capped by President Barack Obama's secret and dramatic flight to Afghanistan. The American television networks accommodatingly aired his live press conference from Bagram Air Force Base, with U.S. troops providing the ideal backdrop.
His report on the American mission, claiming near-annihilation of the al-Qaida terrorist network in the country and plans for the ultimate withdrawal of U.S. forces, accentuated the positive and played down the negative. Mr. Obama made the best of a cloudy picture while justifying continued American involvement beyond the pure military role.
In doing so, he artfully addressed both the overwhelming desire at home for the return of the U.S. troops and the growing skepticism of any continuing American engagement that looks like the nation-building he has vowed to avoid.
Mr. Obama's trip complicated Mr. Romney's efforts to characterize him as an ineffective and even a failed leader the realm of foreign policy. Heretofore, that has been a ready target for any Republican opponent, going back at least to Jimmy Carter's fateful 1980 mission to rescue American hostages in Iran.
The bin Laden anniversary and the Obama flight also diverted for a time Mr. Romney's laser-like focus on the state of the economy at home. Several days later, as the Labor Department reported a disappointing rise of only 115,000 new jobs created in April, it also registered a slight downtick of the unemployment rate from 8.2 percent in March to 8.1 percent.
The very modest drop was attributed to fewer Americans seeking jobs in April and thus not included in the workforce. Nevertheless, the reduction moved the statistic closer to the 8 percent or below that Obama stalwarts promised long ago as a yardstick of success in righting the economy.
In terms of fundraising and rallying the Obama political base, his incumbency continues to be a powerful tool. He keeps drawing high-end givers to expensive receptions and dinners, and to campaign-sized rallies of the faithful. The latter are geared to reawakening the fervor for Mr. Obama that brought him the White House in 2008, particularly among African-American, Hispanic and women voters.
With Mr. Romney now having all but assured his nomination as the Republican standard-bearer, he has been obliged to focus on the same segments of the November electorate, with public-opinion polls indicating he has an uphill climb to win a substantial share if not a majority of such voting blocs.
In general, also, the ability of an incumbent president to set the national agenda, in terms of the substantive and the political, gives him a major edge, depending on his skills as a maker and implementer of policy and a political campaigner. In 2008, Mr. Obama clearly demonstrated his ability in the latter. However, in his first midterm congressional election in 2010, he failed to avert the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives that stymied the second half of his current term.
Midway through his first term, Mr. Obama hammered at the argument that he had inherited the economic recession and had no Republican help recovering from it -- getting the car out of the ditch, as he phrased it. That failure illustrated the downside of incumbency in bad times.
Since then, however, this Democratic president, unlike Mr. Carter, has used the second half of his term to much greater advantage. He has avoided the nosedive the Georgian suffered in 1979-80 with a primary challenge that crippled his reelection campaign, as well as a botched energy crisis.
As a result, Mr. Obama enters his own re-election effort with his party generally behind him. He has Air Force One on the runway, waiting to take him campaigning around the country with all the other trappings of incumbency that make him formidable no matter how hard Mitt Romney, in his fashion, goes after him and "Obamacare."