Welcome to the 2012 presidential election. President Obama's State of the Union address last night was a kickoff to a debate the nation will hear for the next two years, the debate over whether Obama deserves a second term.
The debate for the first two years was all about health care and Republican obstructionism. Part of it stemmed from Obama and his fellow Democrats' willingness to drive legislation through Congress with Republicans standing on the sidelines.
But the argument over passing health care is now history. There's another argument to come for 2012. The question of the 2012 race is all about the economy.
At the moment the president's poll numbers are up and there is no Republican on the horizon who looks strong enough to beat him. The exception may be New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But he told "Fox News Sunday" just a week ago that the president has nothing to worry about if the sole threat to his reelection is from a Christie candidacy.
But it's not all rosy. The argument the nation heard on Tuesday night from the president for "investment" in innovation, education and restoring infrastructure can easily be translated by Republicans into calls for added spending in a time of record budget deficits.
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican chairman of the House budget committee made just that argument in his rebuttal to the president. Ryan is a bit young to be a presidential contender but his argument is the heart and soul of the case to be made against Obama. That's why the leading contenders for the Republican nomination are all going to present themselves as managers and especially as fiscal conservatives able to bring budgets into line.
Let's look at the possible contenders against Obama:
- Mitt Romney can talk about his experience in bringing the Olympics to Salt Lake City on time and in budget as well as his experience in Massachusetts. Although his health care plan is not going to help him with the base.
- Tim Pawlenty can talk about his efforts to rein in taxes in Minnesota.
- Mitch Daniels can talk about Indiana having one of the nation's lowest state budget deficits because of steps he's taken in the hoosier state.
- Haley Barbour, another governor is also going to tout his expertise as a government manager.
- Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and my current Fox News colleague, has also been in the state house but his budget record in the state might not be an asset to him.
- Newt Gingrigh can talk about his long term commitment to lower taxes although he lacks the hands on experience that would come from running a state.
- And Sarah Palin, despite having quit midterm as governor of Alaska has the passion to make the case that broken budgets are evidence of bad management.
At the moment, the president's response as he outlined it in the State of the Union message is that America has to compete with India and China to produce more highly educated people who can pump innovation into an economy that's still doing a slow, unsteady dance out of the recession.
But his strong point is that he is willing to work with Republicans to figure out where cuts are needed as well as where a penny spent might lead to dollars earned for people seeking jobs in the new economy.
That's why his poll numbers are spiking right now. That's why the lame duck session, with a bipartisan deal on the tax cut extension as well as bipartisan cooperation on an arms deal has proven so popular with the American people.
That's also why the president's refusal to play partisan politics with the Tucson shooting has proven so popular with the American people.
And that's why, for the moment, his outreach to the biz community and promise of a review of business regulation has bipartisan support and the approval of the American people.
So Obama would like to continue on this path because is leads to re-election. The question is whether or not Republicans in the Congress are willing to work with him and whether he is able to demonstrate that he is also making an effort to give them something to work with.
Two years is a long time and a lot can happen to both the United States and a president. But the gauntlet has been thrown down and the race is on. Here we go.
Juan Williams is a writer and Fox News political analyst. Click here to read his recent five part piece for Fox News Opinion on "The Children of Juarez" His most recent book is "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America--and What We Can Do About It."