Wanted: A Thoroughbred for 2012

Obama looks beatable. The GOP is its own worst enemy. Can anybody win this thing?

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Illustration by Lou Beach for TIME

The law requires that Americans elect someone President next year, but it's become impossible to predict if either side can collect the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win. Both President Obama and the growing posse of aspiring Republican candidates appear weak and unfocused, more stumblebums than thoroughbreds. It has gotten so bad that the honking threats by a tornado-haired reality-television star to run for President now command central attention in the race. All this with the New Hampshire primary looming only 10 months away.

How did we get here? Start with the Republicans. This month's budget fight revealed both the strength and the weakness of the GOP. Fueled by the Tea Party's revolt against a huge and growing national debt, the Republicans won the spending battle at the 11th hour, averting a disastrous government shutdown. But it was close. Does anyone doubt that a shutdown would have been a political disaster for the GOP? You don't win elections by linking arms and handing out seppuku knives on the floor of the House. But the late-night brinkmanship is a reminder that whoever hopes to capture the nomination will have to carefully balance an amped-up base and wary independent voters who have been moving away from the GOP in recent months. That won't be easy.

A second challenge to the GOP is that the race is attracting, rather than repelling, unelectable sideshow candidates — Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, the Donald — each ready to bay and howl at a volume that is certain to devalue the Republican TV debates, divert press attention, amuse Democrats, insult independents and terrify Chinese central bankers. One of the grownup and electable Republicans — Mitt Romney, Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty, maybe Jon Huntsman — is going to have to find a way to emerge from a process that increasingly resembles a fraternity hazing and still appear a credible President of the United States. And nothing has changed the stiff demographic headwind I wrote about in these pages two years ago. Presidential elections attract a high turnout of young and Latino voters, two groups that are becoming more and more Democratic.

But despite the Republicans' troubles, Obama remains vulnerable. A recent Gallup poll shows the percentage of people who see the President as a "strong leader" has dropped from 73% to 52%. While Obama's admirers may look at his cool and cerebral style and see a strong and decisive leader who understands the complex nuances of public policy, far too many voters see only mush. The first law of politics is that what matters is not what is actually true but rather what voters perceive to be true. This President is increasingly perceived as passive and equivocal. His detached style, his affection for nuance and his resistance to getting directly involved in the messy meat chopping of congressional budget writing has created a public persona that is more Adlai Stevenson than Harry Truman, more likely to give 'em footnotes than hell.

Perhaps the best example is the murky message surrounding Obama's decision to intervene in Libya. I think he made the right call to join our allies in supporting a popular revolution against a dangerous thug and to align the U.S. with the youth-fueled reform movement spreading across the Muslim world. While it is too early to tell where this turmoil will lead, the facts of Middle Eastern demography dictate that it is firmly in our national interest to engage with these forces of change to keep them moving toward our democratic values. But the President's war speech, meant to clarify his policy, struck notes of timidity and limitation instead of victory and purpose. Nuanced, yes. Well argued, perhaps. But politically effective? Not at all.

The President's other political burden is a sagging economy. Though the latest employment numbers have ticked up, too many Americans think his Administration is underperforming on job creation. While some economists think a recovery has begun, the cruel reality of presidential campaigns, once again, is that it is the perception people have of the economy, not the statistical reality, that rules the ballot box. The Obama recovery may prove too weak to help the Obama re-election campaign.

Combine the perception of a bad economy with one of weak leadership and it leaves Obama beatable, something even some Democrats will admit privately. The Republican nomination is very much worth having, warts and all. That is why Romney, Gingrich, Pawlenty and all the others are eyeing a lumpy bed in a cheap motel room tonight somewhere in rural Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, thinking, Only 600 more nights like this to go.