For President Obama and the Republicans seeking to defeat him, the month of September will be the moment when the 2012 campaign takes shape, with the coming weeks offering a series of tests that will sharply define the choices in next year’s election and reveal more about the characters of those who seek to lead the country.
No one has more at stake than Obama, whose leadership is under challenge and whose reelection is now in doubt because of persistent unemployment and questions about his leadership. But nearly as much may be at stake for the Republican Party, whose political brand remains troubled and whose presidential field is just now coming into focus.
Beginning this week, two consequential debates will begin to unfold. The first will pit the president against the Republican Party as the two sides lay out competing plans and visions for rescuing an economy still in distress. In some ways, that debate will be an extension of the one that took place over the debt ceiling this summer, but with the focus likely to be much more on a president whose policies so far have not turned around the economy.
The second will take place within the family of Republicans, highlighted by a series of candidate forums that not only will define more clearly where a GOP president might take the country but also should highlight potentially significant differences in style and philosophy between the two leading contenders for the nomination, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
All this will play out against a backdrop of deep public dissatisfaction that has intensified in the aftermath of the polarized fight over raising the debt ceiling, which is now seen by some analysts as a pivotal moment in the country’s political history.
That fiscal battle, which took the country to the brink of default and brought a downgrading of the nation’s credit rating by Standard & Poor’s, produced further erosion in public confidence in government and even greater anxiety over families’ economic security.
September will be no ordinary month. Events will cascade from beginning to end. This week will see the first GOP debate to include Perry, on Wednesday beginning at 8 p.m. EDT at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.
The next night, at 7 p.m., Obama will outline a jobs program before a joint session of Congress — a date settled on after an embarrassing exchange between the White House and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that saw the speaker stare down the president, who first wanted to speak to Congress the same night as the GOP debate.
Republicans will hold two more debates later in the month, both in Florida. The first is scheduled for Sept. 12 in Tampa, the second for Sept. 22 in Orlando.
Before all that takes place, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) will hold a candidate forum on Labor Day that will feature the major Republican presidential hopefuls. Romney will outline his jobs program at a speech Tuesday in Nevada. And the congressional supercommittee tasked with finding more than a trillion dollars in additional spending cuts will hold its first meeting on Capitol Hill.
Given the state of the economy, most attention this week will be on the president. In the run-up to Obama’s speech, there has been considerable discussion about whether he should go big and bold with a new package or offer a series of smaller measures more likely to win the approval of Republicans in Congress.
William Galston, White House domestic policy adviser to former president Bill Clinton and now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, argues that the president has no other choice than to challenge the Republicans in Congress rather than tailor his ideas in the hope of reaching accommodation.
“I’d assume, sight unseen, that the White House understands that the more adequate the president’s speech is to the scope and scale of the problem he is addressing, the less likely it is that congressional Republicans are going to buy it,” he said.
He added, “Unless he just wants to give a minimal speech that focuses on the areas of potential agreement — and I can’t imagine why — they must understand as they’re drafting it that the point of it is to plant a flag and begin to frame the argument about the economy and the role of government in the economy.”
David Axelrod, the former White House senior adviser and now chief strategist for the reelection campaign, said: “There will be some sharp distinctions between his approach and the approach of the Republicans. To the extent those distinctions are clear, it will be a predicate for the campaign. Obviously the objective is to get things done, but it’s important that people understand what we’re driving for, and he’s going to let them know clearly and consistently.”
If the confrontation over jobs and the economy helps to frame the issue differences between Obama and the Republicans, the series of Republican debates could do much to clarify the state of the race to determine Obama’s challenger next year.
Perry’s entry three weeks ago shook up that contest, demoting Romney as the apparent front-runner. What isn’t clear is whether Perry is enjoying a short-term boost as the newest and most significant recent entrant in the race or whether he can sustain his popularity through a vetting process that already has revealed general-election vulnerabilities.
By the end of the month, said Alex Gage, a Republican strategist, “we will know if Perry is for real as the vetting process goes on and as people get an opportunity to see all these [candidates] on the same stage and listen to them.”
For now, there’s no question that Perry has hurt not just Romney but also Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who had some momentum earlier in the summer. That means Perry will be in the spotlight at Wednesday’s debate, and Romney advisers say they couldn’t be more pleased.
“We go into this [debate] pretty happy,” said Stuart Stevens, chief strategist for the Romney campaign. “Do you know what this would be like if Perry wasn’t in the race? You’d have everybody shooting at Mitt Romney. That’s not the case now, and that’s a good thing. This is a referendum on Texas and Perry’s record.”
Romney already has gone after Perry, though not by name, as a career politician who isn’t capable of solving the country’s economic mess. But will he directly challenge Perry’s record in Texas, which Perry has touted as the best job-creating state in the country?
Perry advisers declined to talk about their preparations for the debates, but someone who knows Perry well said the governor anticipates that somebody will go after him Wednesday.
“You wouldn’t say he’s [Perry] a master debater,” this person said, “but he does what he needs to do to move the ball down the field.”
September will be notable for one other political event. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has said she will make clear by the end of the month whether she will become a candidate for president. She was in Iowa on Saturday and was heading to New Hampshire for another weekend appearance.
Her decision likely will be the last one affecting the shape of the Republican race, but by the time she announces something, voters will have digested enough from the president and the Republicans to gain some new impressions of their choices.
As Gage put it, “Attitudes do not change without information, and September is going to be an information-heavy month.”