Taking On Obama in '12: Tougher than You Think

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Luke Sharrett / New York Times

President Obama waves goodbye after delivering a speech at the Portland Expo Center in Maine on April 1, 2010

The conventional American presidential-campaign wisdom:

The elections have become permanent campaigns, starting earlier and earlier every four years.

President Obama is fundamentally weakened, and Republican candidates are already champing at the bit to take him on.

The 2008 race so profoundly changed the way the contests are funded that no major candidate will ever again take public financing (or the spending limits that come with those government dollars) to bankroll their efforts.

Because all these pieces of wisdom are completely false, now is a good time to look at where the 2012 presidential race really stands. And while engaging in punditry about a contest several years off is always good fun, the exercise better serves to examine the political health of the incumbent — which is, it turns out, surprisingly robust.

Here are the facts of Election 2012, as it stands now:

Two major Republican candidates are engaged in the serious travel, staff hiring, contact building and general planning that are required to make a credible run for President. That pair is Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who ran in 2008 and is — and will be for the foreseeable future — the party's front runner, and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who was considered for the 2008 veep slot by John McCain.

Romney has the stronger hand but some real problems. He retains almost all the strengths he brought to the battle two years ago, when he was the runner-up to McCain: a record of accomplishment in business and government; a stately mien (and famously great hair); a solid and photogenic family; a New England base, anchored by a vacation home in primary-powered New Hampshire; and vast personal wealth and fundraiser prowess. But his liabilities are equally formidable. Some are the public's long-standing bigotry against his Mormon faith, a history of breathtaking policy flip-flops and, perhaps as grave — no kidding — his striking nonchalance about transporting the family dog in a box tied to the roof of his car en route to a family vacation. (Note to would-be candidates: Don't piss off the animal lovers.)

Romney has new challenges too. For one, he hasn't demonstrated that he has learned some key lessons from 2008, and he still seems unable to talk openly and with passion about his faith or political convictions. This has led to his second problem: among much of the Republican Party's smart set, Romney is not considered a satisfactory contender, in terms of talent, résumé or agenda, to take on Obama. And he is sure to face ferocious opposition from the right and left given his confusing opposition to the new federal health care law, which is strikingly similar to the measure he signed as Massachusetts governor (among other analogous items, the statewide plan included a requirement that individuals buy health insurance).

And despite his years in the national spotlight, Romney remains unexpectedly unfamiliar to a large number of Americans. On a recent cross-country trip, as I read Romney's new best seller, No Apology, which features a close-up photo of the author on the front cover, a passing flight attendant exclaimed, "No apology? Not even for his wife?" If Romney can so easily be confused with disgraced politician John Edwards, he'll have to work harder to create a more distinct identity if he hopes to win the White House.

Yet Pawlenty, who plans to leave his governor's seat after November's election and run full-time for the Republican nomination, faces an even tougher test. Romney may have some trouble with his national image, but Pawlenty, in comparison, is nearly anonymous. Even among donors, some leading Republican officeholders and the media — let alone the general public — he is a virtual unknown.

While both Romney and Pawlenty have their eyes squarely on the 2012 nomination, with active travel and media schedules and plans to campaign as Republican candidates in the midterms, they are well behind past early starters in establishing presidential operations. John Edwards, for example, launched his aggressive run shortly after Bush won re-election in 2004, heading immediately to first-in-the-nation voting states, planting stakes in Iowa, seeking key endorsements and carving out policy areas like his pet theme of poverty. There has been no comparable activity this cycle, suggesting a certain ambivalence within the potential Republican field. Romney made his first visit to Iowa in March, as part of his book tour, and Pawlenty has barely touched ground in the early battlegrounds.

Meanwhile, the other most talked-about Republican names — Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich — are cannily leaving the door open for a run, but are spending far more time on personal profitmaking enterprises than presidential campaign foundation building. And Republican élites are just as ambivalent about this trio. Palin, Huckabee and Gingrich may boast charisma and obvious appeal, but each are saddled with their own mess of flaws and failings that render them for now decidedly questionable challengers to Obama.

The quiet, intense search for a stronger alternative extends far and wide, and includes four subjects of a recent column — former Florida governor Jeb Bush, incumbent governors Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Mitch Daniels of Indiana, and John Kasich, who is in the midst of his 2010 bid for governor of Ohio. All have thought about running for the White House during their careers, but none have committed to make the 2012 race — yet.

Other possible contenders who attract buzz, including former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, South Dakota Senator John Thune, Texas Governor Rick Perry and Indiana Congressman Mike Pence, are doing very little to make themselves known, conceive a strategy or raise sufficient funds. The later one starts, the harder it is to put together a winning plan. On the other hand, as long as no single prospect is running fast ahead of the pack, there is less of a price to pay for a late entry. As the deadline approaches, as happens every cycle, we are likely to see a number of surprising candidates leap in with cases to make and stories to tell. Given the number of potential contenders, it will be interesting to see who gets in and who stays out.

Over at the White House, the President's team is adopting an attitude similar to that displayed by George W. Bush's advisers during this phase of their first-term cycle. They are taking nothing for granted and are constantly evaluating how to use the Democratic National Committee and other allies to belittle and diminish every potential rival. At the same time, they don't see anyone on the horizon who particularly worries them, finding both humor and solace in the apparent weaknesses of their rivals. They know, too, that it has been tough to beat an incumbent of late: three out of the previous four Presidents were re-elected after being in dire political shape at moments during their first terms.

Make no mistake, Obama no longer towers as the über-formidable candidate of 2008. Yet the drastic ups and downs of his first year in office and the likely losses his party will suffer in the November midterms have given a distorted view of his muscle for 2012. He is back on track to raise $1 billion, with all of it to be applied to the general election, rather than to any serious nomination contest. Obama will almost certainly opt out of the matching-funds system for the nomination period and public financing for the general election, raising record amounts of cash from the day he commences his effort through November 2012 (in particular, his Internet fundraising power will be re-established). No doubt his Republican challengers will spout bravado about opting out to keep pace with Obama, but such a monumental task is easier said than done without the incumbent's viral appeal and brand name. Not one of them — Palin included — has the proven or latent capacity to raise a comparable amount of money, and the government check could end up as the only plausible option. That will give Obama a significantly bigger financial advantage than the one he enjoyed in 2008 against both Hillary Clinton and John McCain — which is saying something.

And as Obama demonstrated last month with the passage of the health care bill, he is still an amazing fourth-quarter player, who elevates his communication with the American people to world-class standards at the end of a battle, exactly when it counts most. As a snapshot at this moment, none of the potential Republican candidates have displayed anything close to his skills.

As the great American political philosopher Yogi Berra has said, "Prediction is difficult, especially about the future." In other words, Obama's existing underrated strength for 2012 could well be undermined by intervening events. Given how polarizing the President has become, how energized the Tea Party movement is and how troubled the economy remains, you can bet that the contest will be filled with twists and turns. Eventually, we will see a strong and varied cast of potential rivals to the President on the field. But Obama can't be beaten by nothing, and as Berra also liked to say, "It gets late out there early." The same thing could be said for a Republican field that won't be joining the game until closer to the twilight.