Last week’s Republican debate in New Hampshire featured a steady diet of attacks on Barack Obama. Mitt Romney said Obama had failed America. Michele Bachmann declared Obama would be a one-term president. All the candidates, evidently suffering from short memories, blamed today’s economic woes on the Obama administration. Some called his policies European in character and incompatible with American values.
Pundits generally concluded that Romney and Bachmann came off the best. No one really based their assessment on the content of any candidates’ policies, focusing instead on style. Romney stayed on message and Bachmann downplayed the looney/fringe characteristics her detractors often attribute to her.
With Jon Huntsman now involved and Texas Governor Rick Perry contemplating a run, the race is bound to get more interesting and perhaps more divisive. After all, if Obama is as vulnerable as the Republicans say, these will be high-stakes events. Last Monday’s GOP lovefest and Obama-bashing session should therefore make way for a more strident tone.
Any serious observer of presidential politics will agree that two factors will be in play in the presidential election, no matter who the GOP picks: the economy, over which Obama has little control, and the powers of incumbency, where Obama has more control. Republicans readily admit that while they may try to associate Obama’s presidency to Jimmy Carter’s purportedly inept turn in the White House, Obama is not Carter. He is a far more talented campaigner and has a capacity to rebound. The Republican challenger will also have his policies under greater scrutiny and the context will be far different from a Republican primary.
Last autumn, I attended a conference in Montreal where Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, was a speaker. In the Q and A segment, Plouffe was asked about Obama’s prospects in 2012. He conceded that the economy will remain a decisive factor, but he added that the president will be compared to the alternative and not the Almighty. This is usually how elections are fought and won.