The presidential election is about 100 days away. President Obama and Mitt Romney are roughly even in the various polls, with Obama holding slight leads in the key swing states.
A lot can happen in 100 days or thereabouts. Napoleon, for example, went from ignominious exile at Elba to triumph in Paris to utter defeat at Waterloo. South Korea was lost and then saved by Gen. Matthew Ridgway in about 100 days of winter in 1950 and early 1951. In 1948, supposedly doomed incumbent President Harry Truman went from 17 points down in the polls to a victory margin of 4.5 percentage points on Election Day.
What could change the pulse of the election in the next three months? Strangely enough, it may not be the economy. It is now boringly predictable: flat and not likely either to rebound or plunge much further before the November election. The new normal is 42 consecutive months of 8 percent-plus unemployment. The dismal economy is expected to slog along at less than a 2 percent rate of annual GDP growth each quarter.
The public shrugs at four straight $1 trillion-plus annual deficits. Balanced budgets belong to the last century. Housing is still depressed after four years. Home equity and interest on passbook accounts are fossilized concepts. Not even the administration is arguing that the $831 billion in stimulus borrowing, Obamacare, a $5 trillion increase in the national debt, or three years of near-zero interest rates have primed the economic pump.
Yet Obama has not yet suffered all that much politically for the hard times, at least not in the manner once accorded incumbents Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush. Instead, Obama argues mostly that the nightmare could have been worse. Or that four years ago George W. Bush left him a mess. Or that a Republican majority in the House of Representatives beginning in 2011 derailed his successful agenda after two years of Democratic majorities. Or that Romney is the sort of rich financial pirate who got us into the mess of 2008.
Romney counters that Obama's neo-socialist policies turned a natural recovery into a near-permanent recession. Expanded government, more regulations, constant talk of higher taxes, astronomical debt, a federal takeover of health care, insider subsidies to failing companies, and nonstop demonization of successful businesspeople stalled the economy and scared the daylights out of job-creating entrepreneurs.
The public is about evenly split between the two arguments. About half seem to want even more big government and public assistance; the other half want far less of Washington. Romney sounds more competent in matters of the economy, but also stiff. Obama can still soar with his hope-and change-rhetoric, but the now-canned content increasingly ends up all too predictable if not wearisome.
Everyone still insists the election will hinge on the economy and voter turnout, but at the same time there is no national consensus yet on whether Obama should be blamed for making bad things worse -- or on whether Romney could do any better.
Barring some atrocious gaffe, personal scandal or miserable debate performance, what else might break things open in the next 100 days?
Here are a few scenarios. In the next three months, an Iranian detonation of an atomic bomb, or a preemptive Israeli (or American) strike at Iran, could change the entire complexion of the election. If the threat is diffused, Obama reminds us that he really is the guy who got bin Laden. If things blow up, then he proves another bumbling Jimmy Carter who fiddled while the Middle East burned.
Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez or Kim Jong-un might time a new round of adventurism to predate the November election.
If a regional war breaks out over Syria, or Israel intervenes next door, or dangerous weapons fall into the hands of terrorists, Obama will be caricatured as a naif in matters of the Middle East. If Assad leaves quietly and reformists take over, then Obama appears steady.
A major al-Qaeda strike, heaven forbid, on the homeland would remind us of all the crazy talk about trying Khalid Sheik Mohammed in a civilian court, the silly politically correct euphemisms like "overseas contingency operations" and "man-caused disasters," and promises of shutting down Guantanamo within a year of Obama's inauguration. Continued quiet, however, will recall Obama's wise continuation of the Bush-era predator drone program, renditions, tribunals and preventative detentions.
An election that is supposed to turn on the economy may not. And in the next 100 days, an inward-looking, divided electorate may be forced to look abroad.