As the 2012 election gets underway, President Obama is still waiting to see who his opponent will be. Candidates and campaigns matter hugely, of course, but we should also pay attention to the field on which the match will be played—and at first glance, the lay of the political land doesn’t look so favorable to Obama and his party.
The lingering economic slump has demoralized voters and tilted the electorate rightward. With idle workers, underwater homeowners, exploding deficits and debts, growing inequality, and a bitter, broken political system, objective reality isn’t exactly working in incumbents’ favor. Upon closer inspection, however, the electoral landscape may not be as forbidding for progressives as it first appears.
For one thing, the recovery finally seems to be gaining momentum, complicating Republican attempts to cast Obama as a “failed president” who doesn’t have a clue about how the economy works. For another, Republicans are incumbents too, and their intransigence and obstructionism throughout 2011 will make many swing voters reluctant to entrust them with undivided control of the federal government. Finally, the fractious battle for the GOP nomination reveals a party at war with itself, while conservatives’ venomous attacks on Obama push Democrats toward unity.
But no matter whom the Republicans pick as their standard bearer, the tricky political terrain confronts Obama with three strategic imperatives: 1) roll up a big majority of moderate voters; 2) win back a good chunk of the in-dependents who deserted his party in 2010; and 3) fashion a stronger economic message that combines jobs and fiscal responsibility.