Obama faces toughest challenge yet

The US president is facing a growing threat from potentially his toughest re-election opponent: the economy.

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    A sign the summer is almost over is that the politicians are returning to Washington DC. In the next few days they will get down to business again. 

    Attention is turning to the election next year. And in the quiet corners and coffee shops across the city, hushed conversations are raising the possibility that the first challenge to US President Barack Obama could come from within his own party.

    Jimmy Carter was the last sitting Democrat to face a serious primary challenge. No president who had to convince his own party he was still the man for the top job has gone on to win the election. But Obama is in trouble.

    'It's the economy, stupid'

    Just four months ago his approval ratings surged on the back of the death of Osama bin Laden. Some suggested the election was as good as won.

    However, like George Bush Sr, after his successful campaign in expelling Iraq's former leader Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, high ratings boosted by foreign policy success will count for nothing. 

    This election will be fought on the mantra former US president Bill Clinton successfully employed against Bush: "It's the economy, stupid."

    The outlook is dismal. In the last few days economic growth has been revised downward to just one per cent - and that is not enough to put a dent in the chronically high unemployment figures. When the election rolls around, the projected rate of those out of work will be at or above 8.5 per cent. 

    The last time America sent a president back to the White House with those sorts of numbers was in 1940. Franklin D Roosevelt won because unemployment was going down from the figure he inherited. Ronald Reagan did the same in 1984. 

    Obama came into office with a jobless rate of 7.8 per cent but, unlike these historical precedents, the economy is expected to get even worse. 

    Team Obama will cite the mess they had to clean up, the global financial crisis they had to deal with. They hoped that the high-spending stimulus package they put in place two and a half years ago would work and high unemployment would not be an election issue. According to the Washington Post, a president needs a job approval rating of at least 50 per cent to be safe on election day. Obama is down in the lower 40s.

    He can come back from that. This month he will announce his new economic plan. If it is seen as bold and ambitious, if it gets support and passes Congress, his numbers could rise once more.

    GOP in disarray

    Obama could be helped by the disarray in which the Republican Party continues to find itself. No clear front-runner has emerged from the plethora of candidates to declare they are in the race. 

    Mitt Romney is still viewed with suspicion by the party's base, Sarah Palin has yet to decide if she is in or out, and the growth in strength of the Tea Party frightens many independents and many in the centre of the party.

    But if a credible challenger were to emerge, Obama, the man elected by promising a change in politics, a change in the way Washington works, would then have to go negative in the election. His team would have to find a way to make sure it is not "just the economy, stupid".

    The best way to do that is to question the capability and the talents of the GOP nominee, and make the election about trust rather than policies.

    First, Obama has to convince his own supporters he can do the job. Oregon Democratic congressman Peter DeFazio has already questioned if the president can win re-election while one of his biggest supporters, California congresswoman Maxine Waters, says that while she loves the president, unemployment is hurting and there is no sign of a strategy.

    To win the election in the first place, Obama had to rewrite the political playbook, to confound expectations and create his own piece of history. If he wants to win a second term, he is going to have to do it all over again.

    Follow Alan on Twitter @AlanFisher


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