There are storm clouds on the horizon for Barack Obama’s re-election.
Democrats indulged in over-confidence during the Republican primaries. It was an understandable reaction to the chaos that came with all the pandering to the far-Right and the rise of frankly laughable candidates like Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain in the search for an alternative to Mitt Romney.
After that debacle, the Romney campaign manager’s promise of an “etch-a-sketch” moment to re-shake and re-shape public perception about their candidate seemed a dose too hopeful.
But only a month after the Republican primaries all but officially ended, we have a real horserace on our hands.
President Barack Obama holds an edge when it comes to personal qualities – questions about not just likeability but more meaningful measures like “more likely to stand up for what he believes in” and “has the personal character to be president”.
But when it comes to the number one issue of the economy, it is another issue entirely.
According to a new Washington Post/ABC poll, 30 percent of Americans say they are worse off than when President Obama took office in the depths of the fiscal crisis. This is comparable to the numbers President George HW Bush faced when he lost re-election to Bill Clinton in 1992.
And right now Obama and Romney are essentially tied when registered voters are asked who would be better at creating jobs and handling the economy.
Moreover, a series of ads attacking Romney’s leadership of the private equity firm Bain Capital have dominated hours of conversation on cable news but so far show few signs of moving voters – 21 per cent say Romney’s experience in private equity makes them less likely to support the Republican, 21 per cent say it makes them more likely, and the rest say it makes no difference.
The issue, said by Obama to be not a distraction but a defining issue of the campaign, is making no difference, to date.
In other words, Romney has closed the gap on the economy and has reset perceptions enough to begin winning the argument with the American people. This is the ground his campaign wants to fight on, isolating their candidate from social conservative activists who often dominate the headlines with their heated opposition to abortion and gay rights.
There is also a renewed recognition that the kind of personal attacks on Obama that excite the Republican base alienate critical centrist swing voters. Now, Romney is quick to concede that the president is a “nice guy” before concluding that he “doesn’t have a clue when it comes to turning around the economy”.
The nightmare scenario for the Obama campaign is that for all the power of the presidential “bully pulpit”, Obama is only partially in control of the economic recovery. The American economy is slowly improving, especially compared to Europe. Obama’s opposition to immediate austerity in favour of modest short-term stimulus seems comparatively wise.
But contagion from Europe – especially if Greece moves to messily extricate itself from the euro – could demolish these fragile gains overnight. The defeat of French President Nicholas Sarkozy reminds us that incumbency is not a political asset in this environment.
Decisions by European central bankers could make a bigger difference in the American election than anything Mitt Romney does or says. It’s one of the side effects of globalisation – a diminution of national sovereignty that even undercuts the ability of the President of the United States to ensure his re-election.
All is far from lost for Obama: a quarter of Romney’s own supporters say they are not enthusiastic about their candidate, compared to nine-percent of the president’s.
Nonetheless, independent campaign groups for Republicans – so-called Super-PACs – are far out-raising their Democrat counterparts. Conservative big money boys badly want Obama out of the White House.
And because most Americans still blame the Republicans and George W Bush for the economic problems, not Obama, Romney’s insistence that he would be a better steward of the economy is undercut by his bromidic repetition of Republican policy orthodoxies.
After all, the fiscal crisis occurred after almost a decade of Bush economic policies, which saw hard won surpluses turned into deficits. Arguing that a return to this philosophy will return the country to prosperity is a tough sell.
Elections are often decided by trends and narratives rather than by facts or policies. The US economic recovery is real but still fragile – and a European crisis could erase feelings of improvement and replace them with new anxiety.
For several months Democrats were in denial, but now they’re waking up to the fact that this presidential campaign isn’t going to be a cakewalk at all.