The 2012 election campaign starts now

Conventional wisdom holds that a presidential campaign begins in earnest right after Labour Day weekend in a presidential election year—a full year away from now. This is notably when public campaign finance provisions kick in. However, this year, with Republican candidate Mitt Romney announcing his jobs program today and Barack Obama presenting his own version two days from now, it feels more like we’ve already entered the final sprint of the 2012 presidential cycle.

It is too early to predict whether Romney will be Obama’s opponent in 2012, but it is safe to assume that the determining factor in the 2012 election will be the state of the economy and the level of unemployment. Personalities will certainly matter—Obama’s people are banking on as much as they survey the Republican field. But how Americans feel about their economic security or insecurity will in all likelihood decide who gets inaugurated in January of 2013.

The battle lines are already drawn. It is expected that Obama’s employment proposals will be dead on arrival if they require Congressional approval for new spending. The Romney proposal will contain much of the conventional Republican rhetoric since the rise of the Tea Party—spending cuts and no new taxes. Sarah Palin, as always teasing the pundits about running, will weigh in with her assessment. And Rick Perry will respond with his version of the ‘Texas job creation miracle.’

None of this will do much for the many who are feeling the pinch of a sputtering economy or give any hope to the 9.1 per cent of Americans that are officially unemployed. After a disastrous summer during which Washington’s political class lost more credibility than at any other time since the Watergate scandal, no one will come out of the next few days feeling buoyant and optimistic that better days are ahead. It’s under these dire circumstances that the 2012 presidential election could play itself out in the next few days.

Obama was elected as a transformational figure with very high expectations. Too high in fact! Most observers would concede that he inherited a mess—two inconclusive and expensive wars, and a deep recession prompted by the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression. It was clear from the start that he would not have an easy ride. Obama’s stimulus package barely made it out of Congress despite his majority in both Houses of Congress. His health reform package took far too long to pass and, despite its historic character, pleased few on the left and gave momentum to the then-burgeoning Tea Party movement on the right.

The president does have a record to run on, and the electorate still trusts him and like him as a person. But his approval numbers are down and he lost the public relations war during the debt ceiling debate. A disturbing narrative about Obama has emerged in recent months and been met with very little Democratic pushback. Obama, the narrative goes, has not stood his ground against a Republican party that has been energized by the Tea Party faction.

Obama may have been elected as a transformational figure but his best hope in 2012 will be to campaign along transactional lines. Can he get thing done? How strongly will he defend his proposals to the American public? Where is his ‘line in the sand’? Will he lead the pushback against the Tea Party-fuelled Republican party? Whether Obama can sow the seeds of a compelling counter-narrative is why this Labour Day may be as important to his re-election prospects as next year’s.

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