Get ready for the 'Obama Showdown' of 2012

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Despite the fact that President Obama will technically be running against a yet-to-be-named Republican, most likely Tim Pawlenty or Mitt Romney, in a deeper sense, his real opponent will be himself. Meaning, the 2012 election is going to be what one might call an "Obama showdown." It will be President Obama versus the image of him in the eyes of the American people.

The mainstream media and popular pundits currently believe that the unemployment rate and the relative weakness of the GOP candidate field are the two primary factors that will ultimately determine the outcome of the election. Their basic argument goes as follows: If the unemployment continues to fall to near 8 percent by election day and no big-shot Republican emerges, riding in on a white horse, then victory for the president is assured.

Alas, this is an illusion.

Granted that a lower unemployment rate can only help the president's chances, the final result is not going to be the product of some technical economic figure. Most voters in America don't think about the economy in such abstract terms.

Instead, they are far more concerned with whether the country is on the "right track" or whether it is moving in the "right direction." As of today, that key number is hovering around a mere 28 percent. That is highly pessimistic and clearly not a positive sign.

The good news is that the Republican contenders are weak. None of them are likely to inspire much confidence or the sort of hope needed to get people excited; they evoke roughly the same reaction you get when thinking of an average politician ("blah"). So with such "blah Republicans" to compete against, the upcoming election stands to be an internal struggle about who Americans believe President Obama is: a good bet or a bad one.

Given Americans' clear anxiety about the future direction of the country, the central challenge the president faces is painting a convincing image of what the future will look like with him in charge. Even though the president is still widely admired personally, the question in every voter's mind is probably something along the lines of: Why will America be better off if I vote for him?

Unfortunately, President Obama's answer cannot simply be "look at those guys, they're worse!" since he has already had his shot in the Oval Office. To get another four-year term, he will need to sell himself.

The most important group in need of persuasion is "working-class voters," which polls show are widely disaffected with the president. As William Galston, a former senior advisor to President Clinton argues, these lower-middle class voters are "gloomy about the present and think it will be a long time before the economy recovers. They fear that the job market of the future will have little use for workers with their level of education and skills." In other words, to win, the president must convince these Americans in particular that the future of the country is bright and in good hands; the current confidence rating simply won't do, the target ought to be 50 percent or higher.

President Obama may have more talent in his little finger than any of the GOP contenders, but the focus of the 2012 election will nevertheless be solely about him and his perceived ability to lead the country on the road to prosperity.

His image, to put it bluntly, must come to reflect who he truly is - the right man for the job.

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Brit Moller is a UC Berkeley alumnus. Reply to [email protected]



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