The 2012 Republican presidential primary is all but over. With Mitt Romney’s decisive win last week, he became the first non-incumbent Republican candidate to win both the Iowa caucuses as well as the New Hampshire primary. At this point, all that is to be decided is how much money the other candidates will spend running Sisyphean campaigns against someone who will eventually be the nominee.

With the Republican primary settled, let’s focus on November. What will the election be fought over? It’s not going to be an election in which foreign policy dominates, like in the 2004 election, when the Iraq War was perhaps the most pivotal issue. Without Rick Santorum, it’s also not going to be fought over social issues. With Romney representing the Republicans, this election is going to be focused squarely on the issue of who can most effectively manage the American economy.

In his victory speech after the New Hampshire primary, Romney hammered home the message that under President Barack Obama, the economy has suffered, and millions of Americans have been put out of work. Even though these arguments can be appealing, the correlation between Obama’s presidency and a weak economy does not necessarily indicate causation.

In January 2009, the month President Obama was inaugurated, the economy lost almost 600,000 jobs. Though this fact has been cited against Obama, a mere few weeks in the Oval Office couldn’t have created these massive job losses. The Obama administration inherited the worst economic crisis in a generation, with numerous and complex causes. Moreover, recent developments with the European debt crisis are beyond the control of the current president.

While it’s easy to blame economic problems on an incumbent, the real causes of economic downturns are often far more complex.

Regardless of whether these accusations against the president’s economic record are fair, the question is whether or not they can sink Obama’s re-election chances. Nate Silver of The New York Times has shown that the net change in unemployment during the first three quarters of an election year is a significant factor influencing whether an incumbent president is re-elected. According to Silver, “Americans will give a fair amount of credit to a president in an economy that is still below its full productive capacity provided that it seems to be getting better.”

These words should warm the heart of any Democrat, especially those working on the president’s re-election campaign in Chicago. Over the past year, the United States added1.9 million private sector jobs, with 200,000 created this past December alone.

Democrats should not run from a debate on the economy. As many Americans remain unemployed, voters are going to care foremost about who will put the bread on the table.

Mitt Romney will be a formidable candidate, certainly much more so than most of his present challengers, and in all fairness he has an impressive record. Nevertheless, President Obama has a strong record of recent job growth, which should be emphasized in his efforts to gain a second term.

In addition to the debate over Obama’s economic policies, this presidential election will be fought over what role government should have in fostering economic growth. Considering the scale of the GOP attacks on the Affordable Healthcare Act, the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and the stimulus packages, the general election may turn into a referendum on these wide- reaching reforms. The Democratic Party should work to tie these reforms to the decline in unemployment that has been accomplished so far — hopefully such growth will continue through 2012.

The Democratic and Republican Parties have increasingly divergent perspectives on the role that government should have in society. The divergence has no better indicator than the fact that Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign was laughed at, while in 2012 he has challenged Romney more than almost any other candidate. Paul’s vision for the United States differs significantly from the post-World War II era consensus because he supports eliminating the Federal Reserve in addition to five different federal departments.

Obviously, Romney and Paul differ on certain issues, but it is fair to say that Ron Paul has had an influence on political discourse — especially within the GOP — which will continue to influence the Republican Party and the presidential election.

No president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has won re-election with unemployment higher than 7.2 percent. This is a scary fact for any Democrat. But progressives shouldn’t worry: By highlighting an improving economy, comprehensive reforms and differences with the GOP, President Obama has a clear path to a second term.

Scott Stirrett is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. He is the former chief of staff of the Georgetown University College Democrats, and former chair and co-founder of D.C. Students Speak. A CANADIAN CONTENTION appears every other Friday.

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