The 2012 election season is now under way, and President Barack Obama's strategy for winning a second term is emerging.
Instead of reprising the messianic movement that swept him into the White House, he will reinvent himself as "Give 'Em Hell" Barry, an impassioned leader railing against do-nothing Republicans if they oppose the $447 billion American Jobs Act he outlined to Congress on Thursday.
In short, Obama will shift from "Yes, we can" to "No, they won't." Rather than presenting himself as the next best hope for a new America, he will rely on the unassailable proposition that he is by far the lesser of two evils.
He will ask his base to forget all the dithering and compromising that have marked his presidency since the "shellacking" Democrats suffered in the midterm elections, because the other side would be so much worse.
This, of course, is the same cynical approach to electioneering that has turned off voters for generations. And yet, despite persistent sky-high unemployment, stagnant growth and overall malaise for which the president can be fairly held accountable, the strategy might actually work.
That's in part because Obama is better at campaigning than he is at governing. The forcefulness and clarity that he displays in campaign speeches disintegrate into nonpartisan mush when he wrangles in the back room with Republicans whose only goal is to bring him down. When he gets back on the stump, talking directly to the people as he did on Friday in House Republican leader Eric Cantor's home district in Richmond, Va., Obama is on fire. His voice rises nearly to a shout as he implores Congress to "pass this bill" right away. He seems like a different man.
More important, Obama could be dead right about his opponents. Deeply in thrall to the reactionary doctrines of the Tea Party, many Republicans seem hell-bent on nominating a candidate that Attila the Hun would dismiss as a flake.
The enormous gap between the current GOP front-runner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and reality became crystal clear during the Republican debate the night before Obama's address to Congress. He came across as George W. Bush on meth, branding Obama as an "abject liar," denouncing Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme," claiming that the science about global climate change is "not settled" and basking in applause from the audience over Texas' high rate of executions.
Perry is clearly a man who does not care how he is perceived by moderate Republicans or independents. He has put all of his extremist ideas in a book titled Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington, in which, among many other ridiculous notions, he calls for the repeal of the constitutional amendment that authorized federal income taxes and argues that Medicare is unconstitutional.
It was on Perry's watch that Texas schoolbooks were revised to suggest that global organizations such as the United Nations are out to undermine American sovereignty and that the Founding Fathers intended for the U.S. to be a Christian nation. And he believes that creationism, a religious concept, should be taught as an alternative to evolution in school science classes.
Perry delivers these bombshells with a sneering certitude that reminds me of George Wallace at the height of his reactionary populist powers. The fact that a politico as shrewd as Perry has decided that the route to his party's nomination goes through this wretched underbelly of American politics is undeniable proof of the extremism to which the GOP has succumbed.
It's still possible, of course, that the Republicans will come to their senses and nominate a more credible champion like Mitt Romney, who, for all his drabness and inconsistency, has bona fide credentials as a businessman and former governor. The showdown between him and Perry that is emerging will be a struggle for the soul of the Republican Party, one in which all Americans have a stake.
What America needs over the next 14 months is a serious debate about getting the country back on track, not a clown show. Obama needs to defend his record and his plans for the future against a serious rival who actually stands a chance of unseating him, not enjoy a cakewalk against a cartoonish buffoon likely to drag the country over the edge of the flat earth he might still believe in.
Disagree as you may with whatever proposals Romney is putting forward these days, you can still imagine him as president. His nomination would be the Republicans' best chance of forcing Obama to explain why he is the best choice to be our leader instead of just not as bad as the other guy.
Jack White has been covering national politics for more than three decades.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.