A choice or a referendum? With Mitt Romney emerging as the likely Republican nominee, that is the question on which voters can now start focusing. And a new ABC/Washington Post poll shows how crucial their answers will be.
If the election is framed as a judgment on Obama's record -- if voters ask, "Am I better off than I was four years ago?" -- the advantage clearly rests with Romney. Only one in 10 Americans rates the state of the union as good, and only three in 10 say the country is headed in the right direction. On every question concerning his handling of the economy, the president's rating remains below 50 percent.
But the picture changes dramatically when voters compare Obama to Romney. In a head-to-head matchup, the Democrat leads the Republican 51 percent to 46 percent. Asked who better understands the economic problems facing Americans, voters prefer Obama by 17 points. His margins are similar on handling of terrorism and foreign policy. If Americans think of the election as a choice between two specific alternatives, Obama becomes the favorite.
Romney's strongest bet remains the weak economy. Unemployment has dipped to 8.3 percent, but that's still devastatingly high for many families, and the real jobless rate -- including discouraged job seekers and part-time workers -- is about 15 percent.
The president can argue all he wants that he did not cause the economic downturn and that it would have been worse without his policies, but the brute fact remains: The president owns the economy. He cannot run on slogans like "Happy Days Are Here Again" or "Morning in America." The best he can do is "Things Are Getting Better" or "The Other Guys Would Be Worse" -- not exactly clarion calls to arms.
Obama vastly outspent Republican opponent John McCain in 2008, but the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case has drastically altered the landscape since then. Super PACs backing Romney have already demonstrated their ability to raise tons of money and spend it on highly negative ads. The "swift boat" attacks against John Kerry in 2004 will look like rowboat assaults in 2012.
Obama's best argument is that the unemployment number is dropping, slowly but steadily, so don't change course and screw things up. The public's mood is definitely brightening, with the president's overall approval rating reaching 50 percent for the first time in many months. As a result, Republicans are in the awkward position of almost rooting for economic failure. One tipoff: their anguished protest against Chrysler's Super Bowl ad in which Clint Eastwood praises the recovery of Detroit.
Then there are Romney's obvious weaknesses. Even Republican voters see him as cold and remote, with only 23 percent agreeing that "he understands voters like you." And while Romney is running as a job-creating business executive, Republicans say Newt Gingrich has the "best experience" to be president. Even if Romney does not make a single mistake between now and November, he's already given his opponents plenty of ammunition. "I like being able to fire people" could become the seven most memorable words of the year.
In 2008, Team Obama understood the emerging power of the Internet to raise money, create an organization and give supporters a priceless sense of ownership in the campaign. Their comparative advantage might be less this year -- rivals, such as the tea party, have learned from Obama's success -- and their enthusiasm might be dampened a bit, but the reach and power of the president's campaign apparatus remains an important asset.
Obama's rival can only urge voters to "imagine me as president, as commander in chief," while the incumbent fills that role and space every day. And without a doubt, Team Obama will make sure that Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gadhafi are seen more frequently than Simon Cowell on TV sets next fall, probably with big red X's across their faces.
Finally, there's demographics. The electorate was only 74 percent white in 2008, and that figure will drop by about two points this year. Obama won two out of three Hispanic votes last time, and Romney's virulent anti-immigration stance could drive that margin even higher -- a key factor in swing states such as Colorado, Arizona and Nevada.
Nine months is a long time. Outside events -- a tsunami in Japan, an economic collapse in Europe, a threat to oil supplies in the Persian Gulf -- could seriously disrupt the election season. But right now, as voters begin comparing Obama to Romney, the president's prospects are definitely improving.