Despite all the distractions, most of the issues that will shape the fall presidential campaign are clear. Gallup says the economy, health care, unemployment, the federal budget deficit and terrorism were the top five issues on people's minds a year ago. As of Feb. 29, 2012, Gallup says there has been little change, as the top 5 are the economy, unemployment, the federal budget deficit, the health-care law passed in 2010 and terrorism/national security.
The economy has remained the top concern for voters in the past year. Before they vote in November, Americans will ask themselves the classic questions of “are you better off today than you were four years ago?" and "are your children's prospects better than they were four years ago?" These questions will be tough on President Obama.
I try to picture a rally in which Obama tries to establish a reframe with his friendly crowds, where he states a sharp fact about an issue and the audience response is a cheer of "four more years!" The set-up for any applause line would require selective data parsing and avoiding the actual cumulative results of his 3-plus years in office.
Unemployment, energy prices, health-care costs, economic growth and the intrusion and size of government all demand a cumbersome explanation that concludes with a plea for patience from the president.
For an incumbent running for reelection, being able to recite a few factual examples of progress and clear successful results is always Plan A. Obama must revert to Plan B, which includes obfuscation, denial and attacks — the harsher the better. But it is too early for that. To stay negative for the next 228 days would tarnish Obama at least as much as his opponent. Obama's message will be muddled for a while. He can’t take credit for what doesn't exist and he can't maintain savage attacks through Election Day in November. Even though the Republican nominee will have a late start, the clarity of his facts and the certainty of where the United States stands on the issues that matter are easy to quantify and recite.