Separated at birth? (Photo: AP)
The US economy, as the astute NYT commentator David Leonhardt notes, really does seem to be tumbling back into recession. The nightmare scenario for Obama is coming true. My scary headline is only slightly over-emphatic.
There's plenty of reaction on the debate here and here. In short, the two front-runners, Romney and Perry, did well. Romney is very practiced at this now and has become a subtle, assured performer. Perry was slightly more uncertain, as you would expect, but didn't make any major gaffes. He did, however, expose a major strategic vulnerability by repeating and intensifying his opposition to the social security programme that millions of Americans rely on in their retirement. It's fighting talk that will fire up his core conservative vote but at the expense of his electability in the general - and thus, arguably, in the primaries too. Perry is shaping up to be Barry Goldwater, and Republicans old enough will recall that Goldwater didn't do too well.
But back to the general election, and to Obama's challenge. How will he run? Obviously, the hopey-changey thing isn't likely to fly. Healthcare is still unpopular. And although, in a sane and rational world, he should be able to run on "things coulda been a lot worse", he won't get much credit for his administration's handling of the economy. Unusually for a Democrat president, national security may be Obama's strongest suit, having kept American safe from new attacks, seen off its number one enemy, and toppled Gaddafi. And yet, this election won't be about national security unless something awful happens and the country feels threatened again. This election will be about who can fix the economy, and generate new jobs.
Obama and his team now know that there is highly unlikely to be much enthusiasm for him outside his core constituencies, come the election. So their only hope is to win by painting the alternative as much worse. If there is a glimmer of hope for Obama from recent polls, it's that 70% of voters still find him likeable. That is something - and, given the difficulty of running on his record, it may be all he has.
What this all means is that there is a great and probably irresistible incentive for Obama to run a very personal, character-destroying campaign against his opponent. We can expect that just as soon as the likely Republican nominee emerges, he will get swiftboated. And the swiftboating won't stop until November 2012. This is going be a very fierce, and very close, fight.