By Tom Switzer
You'd never know it from his recent visit to Australia, but with the US presidential election 10 months away, Barack Obama should be in serious political trouble. That "hopey-changey stuff", to coin a Palinism, has not worked out as planned. Unemployment remains stubbornly high. The debt mountain is of Himalayan proportions. Home foreclosures continue to swell. And polls show widespread pessimism about America's future.
The Democratic Party base, meanwhile, remains annoyed at Obama for his failure to shut Guantanamo and to implement a carbon tax. His hawkish attitude to Afghanistan and drone strikes has sent some left-wing bloggers into a complete lather.
No wonder the President's job-approval rating has been languishing in the low to mid-40s range - well below the levels George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan had a year before they were re-elected.
Yet the Republican contest for the right to face Obama later this year remains highly volatile. And most seasoned observers in Washington say the President's weaknesses are softened by the flaws of his opponents, which have become increasingly evident in the lead-up to tomorrow's Iowa caucuses.
They're uncharismatic, uninspiring, gaffe-prone, scandal-plagued, serial flip-floppers: all these barbs have been hurled at a plethora of unorthodox candidates that reminds one Washington Post columnist of "that famous bar scene in Star Wars".
In reality, this primary race has always been a contest between two competitors: Mitt Romney (the front-runner and GOP establishment candidate) versus Anybody But Romney (the right-wing insurgent who doles out ideological red meat to the rank-and-file warriors).
All the available evidence indicates that, in an election against Obama, the smart, handsome and malleable Romney would have the best chance to win over crucial independents in swing states.
But his candidacy carries risks in the primary bouts, and not because of his Mormon faith. (He once rebutted accusations of supporting polygamy by pointing out that he's the only GOP candidate to have had just one wife.)
Romney's problem is that the Tea Party conservatives won't stomach him. When he was Massachusetts governor, for instance, he signed into law a state healthcare plan not dissimilar to ''Obamacare''.
The Anybody-But-Romney candidates have included former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Pizza executive Herman Cain, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann and even, at one point, property tycoon and reality TV show host Donald Trump.
All have effectively crashed and burned, although the twice-divorced Gingrich could redeem himself in primaries later this month in South Carolina and Florida where he remains popular.
The way this campaign has cycled so rapidly from one candidate to another means that another ABR contender - Rick Santorum, a Christian conservative and former Pennsylvania senator - is now surging in the Iowa polls.
There is one other complicating factor: Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who sounds like Noam Chomsky when he rails against neo-cons, a Pax Americana, the Iraq invasion and any pre-emptive strike against a nuclear Iran. (He also defends WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.)
His low-tax and civil libertarian views, combined with his anti-war activism, may resonate with a solid group of young limited-government advocates in Iowa. But it will spook the GOP faithful with the prospect of turning the party over to fringe elements.
Paul can be safely ruled out of winning the nomination, though there is always a risk he may run as a third-party candidate in the election. Any independent candidacy, of course, will likely help Obama by sucking away votes from Republicans.
Despite all this, Obama is still on the ropes. Why? Well, for one thing, any field of primary opponents always looks weakest at precisely this moment when the infighting is at its worst and nobody looks really presidential.
That could change, as it so often does, during a long election year. Trial by fire, as Obama himself remembers from his 2008 duel with Hillary Clinton, can make a candidate stronger.
We've all heard the 1992 campaign mantra, "It's the economy, stupid." That is especially true in 2012. The economy is very weak and, given Europe's fiscal crisis, it's unlikely to experience a robust recovery by November.
True, there are a few tentative signs that the bleak unemployment outlook could improve. But the jobless rate stands at a lousy 8.6 per cent. And few economists believe it will fall fast enough to reach the 7.4 per cent rate that prevailed in 1984 when Reagan was re-elected in a landslide. Not since the Great Depression has a president faced worse unemployment.
Add to this the fact that the key independents who favoured Obama in 2008 have turned against him in key battleground states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and it appears that the President's prospects are perilous.
To be sure, Obama is in the enviable position of having no real intraparty opposition and his team has plenty of campaign cash to help run a negative campaign against the Republican nominee. Still, whoever wins tomorrow, it would be foolish to overstate the President's re-election prospects.
Tom Switzer is a research associate at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of Spectator Australia.