1. The Economy: While growing, the American economy is far from what it was prior to the 2008 panic that coincided with the bursting of the housing bubble. We're still down more than six million jobs from our peak and many of those jobs are gone forever. Uncertainty for small and large businesses alike has kept billions of dollars in capital on the sidelines. The Fed has pumped money into the system hoping to spur spending and hiring. The American economy is at an inflection point in its re-development and President Obama is at the helm in unsettled seas. Voters in swing states this fall will have to be convinced he has the plan for spurring the economy back to health. Numerous public polls have shown Americans generally and voters specifically highly critical of the President's handling of the economy. The economy has been and will continue to be the number one issue this year.
2. Debt/Deficit: A recent survey of swing state voters by the Democrat/centrist think tank Third Way showed that independent swing voters are extremely concerned about the state of the Federal debt and budget deficits. Most of us younger than 50 know that Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs will not be there for us when retirement eventually (if ever) comes for us. With Medicare's own actuaries predicting the program's hospital wing will go belly up in 2024, the President's refusal or inability to address this issue in detail could have voters looking to Mitt Romney.
3. The Map: Barack Obama radically changed the electoral map in 2008, picking up tried and true red states like Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia. He also swept through the newly populous mountain west picking up Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. He won the big prizes of Ohio and Florida to cap off an enormous victory. However, this year his electoral map looks far closer to Al Gore's or John Kerry's to his own of four years ago. While he can win without Virginia or Indiana, the President can't win without Ohio or Florida. He and his campaign will have to focus on those places they know have a strong chance of going their way in November. While they will have massive resources, they will have to be smart about how they spend them - and focus on winning where they can - not where they have before.
4. The Big Q: President Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign famously asked America, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign has already begun to ask this question of voters this year. While things may be marginally 'better' for Americans, an overarching sense of unsettledness still lingers over the country like a smoggy day in Los Angeles. The President will have to point to things that have made individual Americans' lives better and the two things that top that list - the stimulus and Obamacare, are things the President and his campaign know are highly unpopular with the electorate.
5. SCOTUS: The Supreme Court's hearing of Obamacare in March was historic both for its duration (three days) and the potential impact of its decision on the President's signature legislation due this coming June. The President has already publicly expressed his displeasure that the High Court may strike down key components of the Affordable Care Act. Based on a recent report out of Congress, it looks less affordable everyday. There will be a great deal of noise on both the right and left regardless of the decision but if struck down the President will have to make straw men (and women) out of the "unelected" court. Voters aren't big fans of the law to begin with and the law being struck down would give the President no major policy achievement to speak of.
6. Voter Cynicism: Here's one thing you don't need a survey to understand: Voters don't believe anything anyone tells them about anything and that includes President Obama. Ron Fournier's excellent piece last week echoes this point. The voting public is bombarded daily with facts and figures from all sides, all carefully crafted to make a specific point about a specific issue. What's rarely found is the whole story. The electorate knows when someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes. For example, the recent to and fro on the Buffett Rule had the President and the White House exclaiming its fundamental importance to solving our budget issues. It then turned out that the Buffett Rule will raise $64 billion over 10 years - a rounding error in the trillions of dollars of debt we're currently sitting on.
7. Lack of Vision: General Election 2012 could be a race to the bottom. The President's campaign, as it has done so effectively over the past three years, will utilize divide-and-conquer techniques on the electorate to blame the rich for the country's problems without providing any specific policy prescriptions other than tax increases to help pull the country out of the quicksand in which it currently finds itself mired. Voters want, and frankly deserve, a positive vision for what the future looks like backed up by solid proposals. "Hope and Change" were powerful concepts in 2008 but the President knows that he can't rely on those anymore. Many of the plans that Americans would like to see will go unspoken by the Obama campaign because they likely involve less government intervention rather than more, something his core supporters (and the President himself) are diametrically opposed to.
8. Europe: Europe is up. Europe is down. Europe is safe. Europe is on the brink. We hear a different story out of the Old World nearly every week now and the President and his team are holding their breath hoping the European economy at-large holds on until after November. Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal are risky bets on which to stake one's re-election but the President can do little other than cross his fingers. The Germans, driven as much by desire to keep the Euro competitive as to save the economies of poor countries, need to keep their musty and dusty Southern European cousins afloat until they can stagger back to their feet. If the Europeans fall back into recession (as Spain and the UK have already done) it's foreseeable that the contagion could spread to the US, Europe's largest trading partner. Our recovery is tenuous at best and its success or failure may be as much psychological as economic.
9. Black Swans and Butterfly Wings: A 'Black Swan Event' is one described as occurring once a century or so, with no prior warning and no path to trace until after it has concluded. We've had about one Black Swan Event a year for the past decade or so, from 9/11 to the Japanese Tsunami. These types of events are outside anyone's control and their shockwaves, literally and figuratively, ripple out in directions we can neither predict nor conceive of. The President must hope that the Black Swans sit placidly on the lake and the butterflies sit on their leaves, wings unflapping.
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