Let the 2012 patriot games begin

There is now every possibility that Obama will be defeated in 2012.

Did I ever say "I told you so" about Barack Obama? If I did, I never meant to and will never do so again. Besides which, it's too soon to deliver a definitive verdict on his presidency, especially when it remains to be seen whether he can achieve the miraculous feat of reforming health care. It grieves me, though, to report that a CNN poll has found that 52 per cent of Americans now think he does not deserve a second term in the White House. Even the hitherto Obamaniacal Washington Post - doubtless picking up on my idea that Hillary Clinton has her eye on a nomination to the US Supreme Court - is mooting that Obama should stand aside for Clinton in 2012, with the understanding that President Clinton II would nominate him for her first vacancy on the court.

Pundits are already predicting a possible Armageddon in the midterm elections this November, in a rerun of 1994 when Republicans took control of both the House and the Senate for the first time in 40 years. These days it is compulsory for every US politician to swear solemnly that this year's elections are the only ones on their minds. The truth, however, is that more and more attention is being paid to an election being held in less than 1,000 days - the next presidential polling day, which will either put Obama back into the White House for a second term or give the country a new, 45th president. Inside the Obama camp, strategising for what insiders are calling "the re-elect" has already begun.

Remember the names

Yet what had seemed inconceivable only a few months ago is now all too real: prospective Republican candidates for the 2012 election are already jockeying for the suddenly much-coveted presidential nomination, with every expectation that he (or she: we must not forget the lady known at high school as "Sarah Barracuda", the former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin) could become the next US president.

We should not pay too much attention to a straw poll at the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) here last month, given the carnival atmosphere around the Marriott Wardman Park and that only 2,935 of the delegates cast a vote. But the results give an inkling of the angry mood among Republicans. The CPAC, once seen as an outlet for the party's far right, is much more representative of mainstream Republicanism now that the US is drifting ever further rightwards.

Coming in first was Ron Paul, the 74-year-old libertarian congressman from Texas who declares himself to be for "limited constitutional government, low taxes, free markets and a return to sound monetary policies" - or, in other words, no more cosseting and government handouts for you, buddy; now you sink or swim on your own. That, sadly, is the viewpoint of most of the 52 per cent of Americans who don't want to see Obama in the White House for a second term, even though Paul's nomination was a symbolic one, greeted with jeers as well as cheers among the delegates.

Second, and way ahead in the presidential stakes as far as the Republican Party establishment is concerned, was the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. But we should not easily dismiss the two candidates trailing far behind him: the egregious Ms Barracuda and the up-and-coming 49-year-old governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty. Or, for that matter, several other plausible possibilities.

Step forward, for example, Marco Rubio, at 38 a rapidly rising political star in Florida who may win a Senate seat in November. He delivered to the CPAC delegates exactly the kind of pseudo-patriotic demagoguery that the impotent and disenchanted want to hear. Immigrants from Cuba such as his parents, he said, "clearly understand how different America is from the rest of the world . . . what makes America great is not that we have more rich people than anybody else", but that "there are dreams that are impossible everywhere else but are possible here".

Throw in that kind of triumphalist exceptionalism that Republicans (well, all Americans, really) love, and combine it with seething anger and evocations of violence, and you get an idea of the potent mix facing the Democrats this November and in two and a half years' time. Referring to Tiger Woods's wife, Pawlenty yelled that "we should take a page out of her playbook and take a nine-iron to smash . . . big government . . . out of the window". Pawlenty and Rubio - remember the names.

“Hopey-changey stuff"

Violent imagery is also working well for Palin, who stayed away from Washington following her starring role at the breakaway Tea Party Convention in Nashville early last month. The party faithful now flock to her $100,000-a-time speeches ("How's that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya?"), and she insists the only way Obama can save his presidency is to declare war on Iran, because people would think "maybe he's tougher than we think".

It's all enough to make you yearn for the relative orthodoxy of Romney (who nevertheless once drove his family on holiday to Canada with their dog strapped on the roof). He would face the disadvantage of being 65 on polling day, but (like Obama) is blessed with looks that make him seem younger. His Mormonism may kill off his chances in Middle America, though.

Most Republicans, alas, are hardly enthusiastic for a candidate who passed the kind of health-care reform in Massachusetts that the president is currently failing to do nationwide. Nine-irons and declarations of war go down much better with the multitudes of unemployed and economically suffering, who now desperately feel a need to express the fury that Obama's so far feeble presidency has evoked. It's not a pretty picture.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on