Welcome to the first big battle of 2012

If the fight over raising the debt ceiling and reducing the deficit feels like a campaign, that’s because it is.

The high stakes, the theater, the seemingly endless truckloads of BS and a battle fought in the press as much as in the Cabinet room. All that’s missing are the long hours on the road and wheelbarrows full of rubber chicken.

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For President Obama, it’s a must-win preliminary game that will determine what kind of shape he is in for the main event.

For now, the president’s reelection campaign is not against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) or Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). In fact, Romney has been conspicuously quiet on the hottest debate Washington has seen in months.

No, Obama is running against the Republican Party on Capitol Hill, a hybrid of traditional GOPers who listen to Wall Street and the bizarro Hopers and Changers — the Tea Partiers who want to burn Wall Street and Washington to the ground.

How the president does against these foes will decide how he does — and who he will face — next year.

In the next two weeks, a number of questions dealing with 2012 will be partially answered by the high drama and possible resolution of the debt debate.

What kind of Republican Party is Obama going to be running against? Will it be the Wall Street Republicans, who are terrified they might screw up the debt ceiling? Or is it the Tea Party GOP, seen by its critics as political nihilists in this debate?

Will the president’s left flank appreciate his reach for the big deal (and the big legacy), applauding him for his bravery? Or will it continue to accuse him of selling out the Democratic Party?

Will the endless assault from Republicans finally lead to Democratic unity and sympathy from the professional left as their man goes to war with special interests?

Is spending really a presidential election issue? It seems the bloated Washington talk of 2010 had legs, but was it real, or just a way to put a bow around all the anti- Obama and ObamaCare anger? And what kind of candidate will this debate produce from the right? 

Even if it is Romney, this debate will influence who he is as a candidate going forward. Whoever wants to win the GOP banner for 2012 must put his or her finger to the wind and embrace whatever version of the GOP looks strongest when the dust has settled.

Finally, the most important question: Will there be enough blame on the economy to go around?

Obama owns the economy, without question. But if Republicans overreach here — and there’s good reason to believe they will — then the president could get a break from voters who believe he is trying to solve longstanding economic problems despite the political games on Capitol Hill.

“The Republicans are trying to make it 1992, when an incumbent president lost his reelection because of a weak economy; and the Democrats are trying to make it 1996, when an incumbent president was able to win reelection because a stubborn House majority overplayed its hand,” said Lara Brown, a political scientist at Villanova University. 

“In the end, given the mood of the electorate, 2012 is not likely to be either, and instead a little bit of both.”

The White House has been nakedly political about this fight, engaging the media more than in any debate since the president took office. The reason, officials say, is because the politics work here.

A grand compromise? A boon for the economy? Elevating the middle class over private jet owners? These aren’t just talking points in a fight to cut the deficit, raise the debt ceiling and win the message war. They’re campaign themes, and the White House is road-testing them on a high-wire.

If Obama gets through this with a win — largely impossible to define right now — he gets to start August and the fall campaign season with a boost, a ready-made stump speech and a steroid-shot to the bully pulpit.

A loss, also difficult to define, and it’s a stumble that opens him up to months and months of GOP attacks that he is a weak leader. And absent a deal, or with the economy going off yet another cliff, that criticism will stick. 

In a campaign that will come to be filled with defining moments, the debt debate is defining the parameters, the parties and the players.

Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill. Find his column, Obama’s Bid for Reelection, on thehill.com


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