And they’re off. The US presidential election is a little less than a year away, the first primary or caucus votes will not be cast until January, yet it seems that we have been enduring saturation coverage of the Republican candidates for months. The 2012 campaign is already shaping up as one that will be harsh and historic with lots of hysterics. The big surprises, so far, are that President Barack Obama is entering into it in such a weakened state and that ”œearly favourites” like former governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota already crashed and burned as candidates. Much can happen once the primaries and caucuses begin, but it is worth assessing what we have learned so far, during the ”œinvisible primary” year of 2011, the long buildup when successful candidates need to be developing organizations, raising money, honing their messages and starting to build that elusive, magical momentum.

On the Democratic side, Obama seems to have caught one very lucky break among all the bad breaks he has endured. No one is contesting his nomination within the Democratic Party. This fact alone improves his chances of re-election dramatically. In the last 50 years, the only presidents to lose re-election were first weakened by a harsh primary contest within their respective parties for the nominations. George H.W. Bush suffered from Pat Buchanan’s attacks in 1992, Jimmy Carter endured the Ted Kennedy crusade in 1980 and Gerald Ford got the Ronald Reagan treatment in 1976. In each case, by being forced to endure sustained attacks from within the party and play to the partisan extreme rather than the sweet centre, where elections are won, the incumbent president became vulnerable, and lost. Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell would confess after Carter’s electoral defeat in November 1980, ”œWe sure as hell spent a lot of time and money fighting him [Kennedy] that would have been better spent against Reagan.” By contrast, Bill Clinton was an unpopular incumbent going into the 1996 re-election campaign, and George W. Bush was vulnerable on the already messy Iraq war in 2004. Both were spared primary opponents, and both secured second terms.

Beyond that one piece of very good news, Obama is swimming in a sea of trouble. After Obama’s near messianic, redemptive, election night celebration in November 2008, few would have predicted that he would not be a shoo-in for a second term. Even fewer would have predicted that by the end of 2011, Obama’s popularity would be flagging, confidence in his leadership would be dropping and even his speechmaking would be losing its magic touch.

In fairness, the Great Crash of 2008, which all but guaranteed Obama’s election, has severely complicated his presidency. When Obama launched his campaign in 2007 he assumed his would be a prosperity presidency, redistributing goodies and rebuilding infrastructure amid a continuing boom. Whatever criticisms he and his fellow Democrats voiced about George W. Bush’s economy, had he or any of his allies expected a crash, they would have shorted the market and made a fortune. Instead, Obama inherited an economic mess that, with the passage of time, has become his. Just as Americans tend to forget the origins of some family feuds, no matter how nasty,  they tend to forget the origins of economic busts, no matter how dramatic at the start, when they stay so nasty for so long on a succeeding president’s watch.

The shock so many people experience when they look at their bank statements, the surprise Obama must experience whenever he looks at his poll ratings, has led to another unexpected blow " Obama’s presidency, so far, has been a particularly sour time. The ”œYes we can” candidate of 2008 promising ”œhope and change” to the country has become the ”œNo we cannot” president of 2011, with a country increasingly bereft of hope and desperate to change but skeptical any good will come of it. The charming healer who first commanded attention when he addressed the Democratic National Convention in 2004, urging Americans not to allow themselves to be sliced and diced into a Red America and a Blue America, has presided over a very divided, cranky America.

Obama himself has vacillated between partisanship and bipartisanship, between stubbornness and centrism. Neither mode has fully worked for him. Trusting the partisan Congress to run with the health care reform helped pass the historic bill but saddled him with a program so complicated few can understand it enough to explain fully why they hate it " or love it. And even though his opponents are no more sure of what is in that massive plan than his supporters are, they have a perfect one-word moniker for it, ”œObamacare,” which will make it an easy target. At the same time, when Obama has been more conciliatory, those same opponents have remained unyielding, often obnoxiously so, making him look weak.

Beyond the unhappy headlines, especially regarding America’s high unemployment, mushrooming debt, volatile markets, moribund housing market and low morale, one of the most disturbing things about Obama’s presidency is that no one is afraid of him. America’s enemies in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere do not fear him " although he deserves credit for stepping up drone hits against major terrorists and giving the green light to the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, after nearly 10 years on the lam. Obama’s subordinates do not fear him " as evidenced by word of a chaotic White House that lacks the discipline that comes from having a tougher " and more experienced " boss.

And Obama’s opponents do not fear him " epitomized in that moment in early September when he publicly requested to address the Congress about his jobs bill on a Wednesday night and Speaker of the House John Boehner pushed him off to a Thursday night. Beyond the fact that this mistake could have been avoided by good staff work before going public, one did not sense that Obama would take revenge or in any way demonstrate that you should not push around the Leader of the Free World.

By November 2011, Obama’s second chief of staff, William Daley, had downsized his own duties, relying more on his deputy, Pete Rouse. This admission of failure was another blow and further proof that those of us who worried that the former academic and community organizer had never been a manager and lacked that all-important executive skill set were right.

From the start of his presidency, Barack Obama has contended with two presidential ghosts " those of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. During his campaign, Obama upset Bill and Hillary Clinton by confessing his desire to be a ”œtransformational” president like Reagan " and it was clear that Obama did not consider Bill Clinton that kind of a leader. In 2008, he demonstrated potential to be a Democratic Ronald Reagan, updating and renewing tired ideologies through his eloquence, the excitement he generated and the vision he articulated of a multicultural American nationalism, envisioning a patriotic, family friendly and compassionate America. Ideologically, as a candidate, Obama corrected the excess liberalism of the 1960s in three important ways. First, he dismissed the New Left tendency to trash core American values while demanding America reform. Second, he did not believe that every problem could be solved if you could just develop the right government program. Third, he understood that politics was important, but culture counted too. This was a post-Great Society and postReagan liberalism, clearly progressive, but also clearly sobered and enlightened by four decades’ worth of experience.

Unfortunately, Obama’s first three years have been more Jimmy Carter than Ronald Reagan, more apologetic than patriotic, more about America’s limits than about America’s greatness, more about economic constraints than entrepreneurial horizons and more about American retreats and defeats than about American victories. Republicans are desperately hoping that in November Obama will play Jimmy Carter to the Ronald Reagan they choose " and become a one-term president like Carter was. Obama, in this one way, is hoping to follow in Bill Clinton’s footsteps, remembering that in 1996, the first-term Democrat was unpopular, considered not quite up for the job, initially written off in the endless predicting and speculating that consumes too much American political reporting, but ultimately, blessed by a hapless Republican opponent " in Clinton’s case the aging Senator Bob Dole.

This then is Barack Obama’s biggest electoral asset so far " the sorry state of the Republican Party and the very good chance that the Republicans will advance a mediocre candidate. So far, the field has been dominated by a candidate who would not run " Sarah Palin; a supposed front-runner who ran badly " Tim Pawlenty; and a front-runner who many Republicans are running away from " Mitt Romney. Moreover, the Republicans in Congress have shown a remarkable ability to alienate more voters than the Democrats do.

Although Obama has frequently had to concede to them more than he wishes, he and his fellow Democrats have succeeded in tagging Republicans as obstructionists, extremists, the party of no. The Tea Party, that broad-based, unfocused collection of anti-big-government activists, which helped the Republicans take back the House of Representatives in the 2010 election campaign, has been painted as a bunch of lunatics. The activists picked the name to evoke the famous Boston Tea Party, when Sons of Liberty dressed up as ”œIndians” " long before they were called Native Americans " to throw tea into the sea rather than pay the odious taxes the British colonial government was imposing. Yet, thanks to Tea Party members’ own tendency toward extremism, compounded by the disdainful media coverage and Democratic mockery, ”œTea Party” tends to evoke the Mad Hatter’s crazy soirée in Alice in Wonderland rather than one of the American Revolution’s iconic moments.

This fall, the zeal with which reporters puffed up the ”œOccupy Wall Street” movement, treating it as a serious game-changer rather than a bizarre marginal coalition of homeless street people and aimless slackers, as unfocused as they are unwashed, reflected the desperate need to have a counter to the Tea Party. Typically " and luckily for Obama " the media has taken the ”œOWS” movement more seriously than it should and treated the Tea Party as even loopier and more destructive than it is.

Going into the first round of voting, Mitt Romney surprised many by emerging as the last man standing, sort of, and so far. Romney, a multi-millionaire business consultant and former governor of Massachusetts, looks so presidential, with his perfectly greyed temples, it hurts. And in one Newsweek shot taken during the debates, a full page colour photograph of Mitt Romney and his Texas rival, Governor Rick Perry, had the two of them looking so perfectly presidential, one wondered if Hollywood directors would have to stop filming whatever political movies they are currently shooting, because central casting has run out of people who look like they should be president.

Romney’s great success so far has been his steadfastness. ”œI think people understand that I’m a man of steadiness and constancy,” Romney said during the 10th debate, in his home state of Michigan, noting he worked at the same company for 25 years, has been married to his high school sweetheart for 42 years and has stayed with the same church all his life. His own staffers admit he worked out the ”œkinks” from his 2008 run, when department store dummies seemed less stiff than he did on the campaign trail. Romney demonstrated an impressive ability to learn from his mistakes, and his campaign this fall has been all but flawless. In fact, the dynamic has been steady " Mitt allowing one candidate after another to fail in the debate, but being just animated enough, just clever enough, to appear to win rather than simply enjoying a victory by default.

Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann had her moment early on as the Tea Party ”œit girl.” On August 13, 2011, she won the Ames Straw Poll hosted by the Iowa Republican Party " a precursor to one of the great scams of the campaign, the exaggerated attention given to the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, simply because these two small, nonrepresentative states have muscled their way to the front of the line. It makes a mockery of democracy to see how the two major political parties, the mass media and too much of the US kowtow to the whims of the party czars in those two states.

Bachmann’s minor victory has been forgotten in a cloud of sloppiness, as her wild statements perpetuated many of the stereotypes about Tea Party types being the know-nothings of today. Bachmann celebrated New Hampshire as the ”œthe state where the shot heard round the world [was] in Lexington and Concord.” There is a Concord, New Hampshire, but the relevant Concord and Lexington are in neighbouring Massachusetts. Schmoozing Iowans, she compared herself to John Wayne, who she said was from Waterloo, Iowa; he was born in Winterset, but the serial killer John Wayne Gacy was indeed from Waterloo.

More disturbing than her fractured historical facts is Bachmann’s voodoo pseudo-science, because it festers in the ugly intersection where demagogic animus meets ignorant mysticism. In one interview she noted that the last swine flu outbreak occurred during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and suggested a link between Democrats in the White House and swine flu outbreaks. Alas, the factual foundation on which she builds her wacky apocalyptic libel is wrong. The last two swine flu outbreaks occurred during Gerald Ford’s and Ronald Reagan’s Republican administrations.

Bachmann’s ignorance sometimes requires research to unravel " keeping reporters busy yelling ”œGotcha”; Texas Governor Rick Perry’s assaults on the English language are immediately obvious " keeping voters laughing. Perry started off with a $17-million war chest and a good reputation as an effective chief executive in one of the few states that is booming during this miserable economic period. But the tongue-tied Texan, who makes George W. Bush sound like Demosthenes, has simply come across as clumsy and not very smart, showing that nearly 10 years of governing in Texas does not provide you with the kind of tough, political seasoning just a few weeks on the presidential campaign trail offers. ”œI think Americans just don’t know sometimes which Mitt Romney they’re dealing with,” Perry said in an early debate, starting what was clearly a canned comment he then proceeded to botch: ”œIs it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it " was before he was before the social programs, from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against Roe v. Wade? He was for Race to the Top, he’s for Obamacare, and now he’s against it. I mean, we’ll wait until tomorrow and " and " and see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight.”

In a subsequent debate, when he knew he was being scrutinized and trying to restore supporters’ confidence, Perry stumbled badly, pausing for nearly a minute trying to remember the third federal agency he vowed to eliminate. In the age of YouTube, these zingers ricocheted around the blogosphere, defining the candidate in one agonizing, 53-second fumble. His instantly famous sequence, promising to end the commerce department, the education department and, and, and…”œOops,” may turn out to be the most devastating debate gaffe in primary campaigning history. (In anticipation of the inevitable Trivial Pursuit question and Jeopardy answer, the third department Rick Perry hoped to eliminate is the Energy Department). Governor Perry has ruefully admitted, ”œDebates are not my strong suit,” but his campaign endured too many humiliating moments to build any momentum in the fall.

Beyond the verbal rubble, Perry was zeroing in on one of the biggest threats to a Romney nomination. In a clearer moment, Perry called himself ”œan authentic conservative " not a conservative of convenience,” dissing Romney, who had to be politically and ideologically nimble to survive as a Republican in what has been called the People’s Republic of Taxachusetts. Romney is not a true blue conservative and the GOP’s core constituents do not trust him. As governor, Romney flip-flopped on the mostly irrelevant but defining issue of abortion and pushed through Massachusetts health care legislation that has many similarities to Obamacare. Unfortunately, the fact that he is a Mormon presents another obstacle, especially for Evangelical Protestants who see Mormonism as paganism. Of course, Romney’s great weakness in the primaries will turn into his great strength if he makes it to the general election. Romney is the most viable candidate Democrats will have a hard time mocking as a loon and demonizing as an extremist. Romney’s fellow Mormon, Governor Jon Huntsman, could also be better packaged as a statesman than a partisan, but he has been at the back of the pack along with Representative Ron Paul of Texas and former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. The way campaign coverage works, each one, if he lasts long enough, will probably enjoy some moment in the sun, when the pack of reporters decides to boost him, but all four were surprisingly sidelined throughout the fall.

Initially, the candidate who most benefited from Republican partisans’ anybody-but-Mitt desperation was the former Godfather Pizza king Herman Cain. Cain’s unconventional, conversational, often comedic style, as well as his simple, thought-provoking 9-9-9 tax proposal, definitely attracted voter and press interest. Many overtaxed, recession-weary Americans, annoyed by Obama’s Big Government interventions, like the mathematical simplicity, even poetry, of a 9 percent business flat tax, a 9 percent individual flat tax and a 9 percent national sales tax. Cain’s candidacy floundered, however, when the candidate of 9-9-9 seemed not to have learned that no means no. With claims of sexual harassment mounting, the unconventional candidate started looking like any other hack caught up in the mess he has made in the past, compounded by the mess he was making with sweeping, unconvincing denials in the present.

Cain and Perry faltered, but Romney still had not made the sale, it was Newt Gingrich’s turn to enjoy a temporary boost. Gingrich, the former house speaker, party ideologue and prolific author, should have been a front-runner. Glib and passionate, he knows the issues, and in the 1980s demonstrated great skill as a party tactician. Moreover, unlike Cain, Gingrich already has had his dirty laundry repeatedly aired, culminating in his abrupt resignation as house speaker during the Clinton impeachment imbroglio. But this supposedly reformed philanderer, now on his third wife, lacks discipline. He lacks the discipline to rein in his comments, balancing his intelligent informed insights with wacky humdingers. He lacks the discipline to listen to others, resulting in the mass resignation of his key campaign aides last spring. And he and his wife lack the discipline to resist spending hundreds of thousands of dollars at Tiffany’s at a time of great candidate scrutiny and deep, widespread American recession. Still, Gingrich was hoping that, just as in 2008 John McCain’s campaign for the nomination crashed and burned only to have a Phoenix-like resurrection, his name recognition and experience will propel him forward once the voting starts.

Once upon a time, Mitt Romney would have been the ideal GOP candidate, a business version of Dwight Eisenhower, moneyed, Midwestern, mature. And amid a lingering recession, with the unemployment rate of ninepoint-whatever-percent understood to be a small indicator of the many more people underemployed or no longer even trying, with a liberal Democrat with no business experience and a dwindling supply of corporate floundering in office, Romney appeared to be the Republican most likely to beat Obama. The Romney campaign was betting on the Republican desire to win, trumping the new, post-Ronald Reagan demand for ideological purity. But the continuing campaign against Romney, not just for the other candidates, put that proposition in doubt.

Every presidential campaign is not only about the individuals seeking office but about a nation seeking salvation. In 2012, with a depressed economy, a demoralized society, a media culture encouraging laziness and self-indulgence at a time when creativity and self-sacrifice were needed, a mess in Afghanistan and Iraq, an increasingly hostile Pakistan and Turkey, an aggressive Iran seeking to go nuclear, an Arab Spring threatening to go Islamist, a Middle East seemingly always on the brink of explosion, Europe decompensating economically, America needed even more salvation than usual.

But while the pundits and cynics inevitably would focus on the campaign’s carnival-like grotesqueries, which seem particularly inappropriate at this historical juncture, they would be mistaken to overlook some of the fundamental strengths on display as well. The fact that this continent-wide conversation among more than 300 million citizens was taking place peacefully, the fact that the political structure was continuing steadily during this tumultuous time, and the fact that American freedom, creativity, adaptability do not undergo the same boom-and-bust cycle as the American economy, should not be overlooked. In 1982, Americans went from their worst economic crisis since the Great Depression to a peaceful, prosperous and redemptive Morning in America presidential campaign just two years later. He may be the wrong man to quote during this tender time in American history, but Herbert Hoover ultimately was right, ”œprosperity is just around the corner.” How Americans get there, how long it takes and whether they have or can find a leader who will take them there sooner or later remain the great mysteries that will unravel gradually, haphazardly, even as they rush to the next presidential election of November 2012.