One year out from the 2012 election, President Obama faces the most difficult reelection environment of any White House incumbent in two decades, with economic woes at the center of the public’s concerns, an electorate that is deeply pessimistic and sharply polarized, and growing questions about the president’s capacity to lead.
Those factors alone portend the possibility that Obama could become the first one-term president since George H.W. Bush, who was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992 at a time of economic problems and similar anger with the political establishment in Washington. To win a second term, Obama probably will have to overcome the highest rate of unemployment in an election year of any president in the post-World War II era.
Last year’s midterm election victories have made Republicans eager for 2012. But public disaffection with the party and a muddled battle for the GOP nomination leave open the possibility that Republicans will not be able to capitalize on the conditions that have put the president on the defensive. Failure could produce the kind of disappointment that would trigger recriminations and an examination of the party’s priorities, tactics and leadership. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney remains the candidate to beat, but so far he has not been able to consolidate support or generate enthusiasm in a party that is more conservative than he is.
What can be said at this point is that, after three years of pitched battles between Obama and congressional Republicans, the country is heading toward a high-stakes contest. Election 2012 will be a contest not just between two candidates but also between two starkly different views of the role of government that underscore the enormous differences between Republicans and Democrats.