This is a rather large question mark. We can, to some extent, guess at what the big issues will be for 2012, but it largely depends on what happens in the next two years. For example, the biggest issue in 2008 didn’t truly arise until a month and a half before the election with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The economy boost is what put Obama over the edge and into the Winner’s Circle. So in that sense, we really can’t be sure what the issues will be. Usually, a lot of the issues are defined by the idiocies and whims of the cable news networks – for example, Obama’s “Terrorist Fist Jab” with Michelle Obama – but it also depends in large part on which of the parties does a better job defining the election to the American public.
So far, Obama, who was so adept at defining himself in 2008, hasn’t done a great job at defining his presidency. George Bush spent his entire first summer in office clearing brush, but he gave off the illusion of getting stuff done. Obama, who’s been going full throttle for the entire first 10 months of his presidency, hasn’t been able to convince the public that he’s getting things done.
I suspect the Republicans will define this next election, and whether or not they are successful depends largely on whether or not Obama can reactivate his juggernaut.
Regardless, here are some of the upcoming issues:
Iran – Since Obama won a Nobel Prize for his diplomacy work, he’s going to face a challenge here. Iran is probably going to have nuclear capabilities sooner rather than later, and if he tries to use diplomacy and fails, it will be undoubtedly labeled as “appeasement” by the Republicans. He kept the door for diplomacy open by recognizing Ahmadinejad as Iran’s leader after the disputed elections, but he lost a lot of points for appearing to support a dictatorial regime – which, come on people, let’s be honest, that’s what American Presidents DO. Remember Musharraf? Ever heard of King Abdullah? Pinochet? The Shah? Hussein? Noriega? Do I even need to keep going? Point is, Obama didn’t do any spin control here, like he should’ve, and he didn’t publicize well enough that he didn’t want to meddle in sovereign affairs. But that’s not what matters. He looked soft, and if Iran gets weapons, it’ll be blamed on him.
Iraq – Remember Iraq? The pullout will be finishing up around the time of this election, and how it goes is a major factor in Obama’s election. If the country collapses into civil war and total chaos, it’s gonna hit the fan, folks. The only weapon Obama will have in that case is the Gandhi quote to the Lord Mountbatten when the British pulled out of India: “There might be chaos, but it’ll be OUR chaos.”
Afghanistan – A bigger problem for Obama if General Petraeus runs for the Republicans. Obama seems committed to Afghanistan, but he needs to watch it, lest it be perceived another Iraq.
Terrorism – If there’s another attack, nothing else will be talked about.
Health Care – Socialism! for the Right, “A good compromise leaves everyone unhappy” for the left.
Gay Rights – As the country slowly slips into an era of Gay Rights (dragging the Religious Right kicking and screaming), this may be one of the last elections on a national level where this really matters. Obama hasn’t changed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and unless he makes some sort of stand, he faces a problem in the gay community.
Israel/Palestine – Obama started on talks with both parties at the beginning of his term, an exceedingly rare thing to do – most Presidents save it for when they start getting concerned about their legacy – and he’s had, for an American President, a relatively radical stance by condemning the illegal Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. This isn’t enough, but this could be a major check mark in Obama’s column.
War on Drugs – The war on drugs is losing popularity in the U.S., mostly because of the rising violence in Mexico. Don’t expect Obama to touch this with a 30-foot pole until AFTER his election, but, if war breaks out between Venezuela and Colombia, Republicans might play any U.S. response – or lack thereof – as a weakness in the war on drugs.
Torture – Probably not going to be an issue at all. The Obama stance is against it, and the Democrats defined that debate. The Republicans might frame Obama as “weak on terror,” but no one’s going to outright say, “we need to keep on torturing.”
Economy – This might be Obama’s best bet or worst enemy. If it’s made an adequate recovery, he’s all set. The issue, of course, has to do with a) debt and b) HOW much better it is. If unemployment doesn’t start dropping, economic growth might not make as much of a difference.
And then you have to leave room for other events. North Korea seems to be losing it, so if they attack South Korea, that’ll be a major issue. China seems to be more cooperative these days, but they are growing at a rapid rate that will, sooner or later, be in reach of unseating the U.S. as the superpower. Pakistan is on shaky ground, and Sudan and Burma both issues the left will want to push forward. Aid to Africa, debt cancellation, combating AIDS, the usual abortion issue, etc. Expect to hear about all of it.