Obama's Worst Nightmare

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Why Texas Gov. Rick Perry could be the Republican party's best hope to take back the White House in 2012

Rick Perry raised hand - Jim Cole AP - banner.jpg

Last month, I laid out the reasons why I thought Texas Gov. Rick Perry was the clear Republican front-runner. I'll take it one step further: Perry would be a very formidable nominee against President Obama, and he poses a stronger threat than most Democrats realize and many Republican strategists acknowledge.

The hits are already out. Democrats are looking at Perry's states' rights, anti-Washington manifesto Fed Up! as a gold mine for opposition researchers, eager to pounce on his claim that Social Security is akin to a Ponzi scheme. They think that his skepticism on climate change makes him seem extreme, even as Obama halted implementation of antismog regulations in a last-ditch attempt to help create jobs. Most view Perry's aggressive defense of Second Amendment rights as a general-election loser; never mind that Democrats haven't touched the gun-control issue since Al Gore's failed 2000 presidential campaign, and for good reason. All of the conventional wisdom couldn't be more off base.

Perry has proven throughout his long career that he's a canny political observer, and he picked up on the anti-Washington mood enveloping the country long before the smart set in Washington did. On the campaign trail, he may be toning down the language from his book, but if anything, his broad themes of bureaucratic incompetence and government overreach offer a striking contrast to Obama's agenda and get at many of the anxieties facing Americans today. If Obama could point to a record of job creation, Perry's musings wouldn't have the same resonance. To an electorate registering historic levels of pessimism about the future, Perry looks more like the candidate of change--and, perhaps, hope.

Polls show that voters care about jobs and the economy, first and foremost. Perry can point to his record as Texas governor, one of the few states with a record of job creation during the recession. Whether he's responsible for that record is a debatable point, but politically, it is a clear winner. Second on the list is concern over government spending, and Perry's book is a virtual treatise against excessive federal spending.

Perry will have to address his views on entitlements, but his vulnerabilities on that front pale in comparison to Obama's vulnerabilities on the economy. Only 35 percent of senior citizens approve of the president's job performance, according to Gallup, one of his worst-performing demographic groups. With seniors so down on the president, it's hard to see Perry's book quote being a game-changer.

For a case study, look at two special elections that are coming up this month, one in a solidly-Democratic New York City district and one in a rural, Republican-leaning district in Nevada. In both elections, the Democratic candidates have lambasted the Republican nominees for supporting entitlement cuts and holding extreme views on the social safety net. In the decidedly liberal confines of Queens and Brooklyn, the Republican candidate has actually embraced such controversial views, and even said he opposed a bill that provided benefits to victims of 9/11.

The Democrats' attacks haven't resonated. Instead, dissatisfaction with Obama is so great that the Republican candidate in Nevada is poised to win in a landslide, and the Democrat is barely getting help from the national party. And in the special election race to replace former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner in New York, polls from both sides show a close race.

If the historic 2010 midterms demonstrated anything, it was a massive pushback against Obama's big government policies--the stimulus and health care reform in particular. Obama saw his 2008 election as a mandate for a more activist government, and his policies created a resistance that is still churning today. Grassroots insurgencies don't happen in a vacuum. But Democrats are still grasping at polls that show that the tea party is unpopular, even though the antigovernment sentiment that fueled the movement is as powerful as ever. The White House misread the tea party movement from the start, and it seems to be misreading it to this day.

Image credit: Jim Cole/AP

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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