Mark Lennihan, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — For the intertwined U.S. economy and presidential politics, it was a year of twists and unexpected turns.
The wobbly economy framed the agenda for both parties, and how it performs in the coming months will help decide whether President Barack Obama wins a second term.
An improved economy in 2012 could greatly enhance Obama's chances of re-election. If it stays about the same or worsens, his chances could fade, regardless of his GOP opponent.
No president since World War II has won re-election when the unemployment rate was 8 percent or higher. It's now at 8.6 percent after hovering around 9 percent for most of the past two years. Even White House economists don't expect it to dip below 8 percent by the election on Nov. 6, 2012.
Republicans hungering to oust Obama struggled through the year to get their act together. The party's conservative base had successive flirtations with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Atlanta businessman Herman Cain and finally former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in search of an alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Until Gingrich's turn for star billing came late in the year, Bachmann, Perry and Cain each had risen to the top of the field, only to crash.
Although Romney began 2011 as the consensus front-runner, many Republicans never warmed to him. By year's end, the GOP battle was shaping up as a two-man battle between Romney and Gingrich.
With the gap now further widening between those two and the rest of the pack before the kickoff Iowa caucuses Jan. 3, the rhetoric is heating up. It ranges from harsh attacks on each other to assertions that Obama's economic stewardship has been a failure and that he is pursuing a doctrine of "appeasement" with hostile governments and has turned his back on Israel.
No matter that Obama is responsible for the operation that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, backed policies that led to the overthrow of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, toughened the U.S. stance against China and helped block Palestinian membership at the United Nations. Or that polls that give him poor grades on the economy give him good ones on foreign policy and national defense.
Obama is sharpening his words, too, portraying Republicans as protecting the wealthy and blocking tax cuts for the middle class. He blames "the breathtaking greed of a few" for the financial crisis and rails against "huge bets and huge bonuses, made with other people's money on the line."
Republicans fire back that he is waging class warfare and that nobody ever won the presidency running on that.
"The Republican race went on for a long time before there was much criticism of the candidates by each other. Now, we're getting close to the Iowa caucuses and the fur is beginning to fly. That's not unusual. Over the next two or three months, we'll have hand-to-hand combat," said veteran GOP strategist Charles Black.
"Probably in March or early April, a candidate will emerge," said Black, who is on the sidelines of this year's primary battle.
Never have there been so many debates in the year before a presidential election. Never before has the primary schedule been so front-loaded, with critical contests crammed into January in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
Republican strategists suggest the many debates and compressed schedule will help harden and polish the eventual winner. Democrats argue that they only serve to help Obama by magnifying the shortcomings of the GOP field.
Last January, Obama seemed comfortably on track to win re-election with the economy still weak but beginning to show signs of recovery. Incumbents have a built-in advantage. Since World War II, only three have lost re-election bids: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.
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