The next US Presidential election so far is shaping up as a battle over the economy with joblessness predicted to remain high when Barack Obama seeks re-election.
While the character of the candidates, Mr Obama’s leadership style and unexpected themes will also be on the ballot on November 6, 2012, certain issues look set to frame each party’s platform.
There will be various key themes and issues expected to dominate the campaign following Mr Obama’s announcement on Monday that he was formally launching his bid for a second term.
Presidential elections are traditionally seen as turning on the performance of the economy. A recession or slow recovery can spell danger for any incumbent president.
Mr Obama took office in 2009 while the deepest recession since the 1930s was still raging, so he will seek to convince voters he pulled the economy back from the abyss and has it well on the road to recovery and job creation. His challenge is that most analysts expect unemployment to be still high in November 2012 and many Americans in the heartland have yet to feel relief in the slow but steady recovery.
The White House has forecast unemployment will remain above 8.6 per cent next year. However, Mr Obama got an unexpected boost on last week when the jobless rate surprisingly dipped to 8.8 per cent, suggesting the economy was speeding up.
The bulging US budget deficit, forecast to hit $1.65 trillion this year, was a potent issue in the mid-term congressional elections in 2010 in which Mr Obama’s Democrats suffered heavy losses.
The Republican candidate in 2012 is sure to lambast Mr Obama as a big-spending, liberal, a pejorative term in US politics.
Mr Obama will argue that Republicans were mostly to blame for running up the fiscal gap under former President George W. Bush, and say Republicans want to slash spending on vital issues like education and energy independence.
He will also highlight his effort to cut the deficit.
Mr Obama’s historic healthcare law is one of the proudest achievements of his legacy but is among his deepest political problems, because the plan, expanding coverage and seeking to rein in costs, is highly controversial.
Conservatives oppose the mandate requiring all Americans to have coverage as an example of government interference in their lives and Republicans have pledged to repeal the law and are attacking it in the courts.
The battle to define the health care law will be one of the most intriguing fights of the 2012 election.
Foreign policy often takes a backseat to domestic issues in US presidential elections but Republicans have already signalled that they plan to make Mr Obama’s stewardship of American power a major issue.
They are already seizing on Mr Obama’s careful response to the wave of revolts in the Middle East to portray him as a weak leader with a fuzzy message who has done too little to stand up for bedrock US political principles.
The outcome of the US intervention in Libya as part of a wide international coalition could play into 2012 intrigue if things go badly and any hike in US combat deaths in Afghanistan could also harm Obama’s prospects.
But the President will argue he has repaired the US image abroad and is on course to say at the end of this year that he will have lived up to a 2008 campaign promise to get US troops home from Iraq.
Mr Obama, and his yet-to-be-identified Republican opponent will also duel over a host of other issues, including education, energy reform, the environment, infrastructure policy, Wall Street regulation and the taxation system.
Mr Obama will likely pledge again to push comprehensive immigration reform, which has been blocked by conservatives in Congress but which is important to the increasingly influential block of Hispanic voters.
Republicans, meanwhile, will highlight social issues like abortion, Mr Obama’s repeal on the ban in gays in the military and religion’s place in public life in their primary campaign for the party’s Presidential nomination.
Factbox: Barack Obama’s first term
• November 4, 2008: Riding a message of hope and change, the 47-year-old Democrat, a three-term senator from Illinois, makes history as the first African-American to be elected President of the US.
• January 20, 2009: More than one million people cram the National Mall in Washington to witness the historic inauguration ceremony of the 44th President, which a captive worldwide audience also follows on television.
• January 22: In the first major act of his Presidency, after just two days in the White House, Barack Obama orders the closure within one year of the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, a symbol to Democrats of all that is wrong with the so-called “war on terror” waged by his predecessor George W. Bush.
• February 17: Mr Obama signs a $787 billion stimulus Bill into law, declaring the “beginning of the end” of the worst US economic crisis since the 1930s.
• February 27: He announces the withdrawal of most US soldiers from Iraq in August 2010 and a total pullout before the end of 2011.
• March 20: He launches a direct appeal to the Iranian people, urging an end to three decades of animosity.
• March 30: He presents a major rescue plan for the car industry, controversially extending government support well beyond the financial sector.
• April 5: In a keynote speech in Prague, Mr Obama pledges he will seek to purge the world of nuclear weapons.
• June 4: In a landmark address at Cairo University, he says he wants “a new beginning” with the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims and calls for an end to the cycle of “suspicion and discord”.
• October 9: Mr Obama is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
• December 1: After a lengthy war review, the President announces he is pouring 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, vowing to “seize the initiative” to end the unpopular war and start a pullout in July 2011.
• March 23, 2010: Mr Obama signs his historic healthcare reform into law, extending healthcare insurance to almost all Americans.
• June 16: Under pressure from the President, BP agrees to set aside $20 billion in an independently run escrow account to pay claims from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
• June 23: Mr Obama relieves General Stanley McChrystal of his duties over disparaging remarks in a magazine article, replacing him as Afghan commander with General David Petraeus.
• July 21: He signs the most sweeping financial reforms since the 1930s into law, saying everyday Americans will no longer have to pay for Wall Street’s mistakes.
• August 31: Mr Obama announces the official end of the US combat mission in Iraq.
• September 10: Eight months after missing his deadline to close Guantanamo, the President acknowledges his administration has “fallen short” but vows again to shut the facility as soon as he can.
• November 2: The Democrats suffer heavy losses in mid-term congressional polls seen as a rebuke of the President. Republicans take the House of Representatives and trim the Democratic majority in the Senate.
• March 7, 2011: Mr Obama lifts a ban on new military trials for Guantanamo Bay terror suspects, apparently conceding that the camp he has vowed to close will not be emptied any time soon.
• March 9: Mr Obama authorises US-led military action to protect civilians in Libya under attack from Moamer Gaddafi regime.
• April 4: Mr Obama launches his re-election campaign.
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