Several Republican hopefuls have launched campaigns aiming to unseat President Barack Obama in next year’s presidential election, but a clear-cut frontrunner has yet to emerge.

What this signals is that the election will not be a contest between two political giants, but, rather, it will be a national referendum on Obama’s presidency. Simply put, on Nov. 6, 2012, American voters will ask themselves: Are we better off with Obama in the White House? If the answer is yes — no matter whom the GOP nominates — he stays. If not, he goes.

With more than a year left before they go to the polls, though, what voters are asking themselves these days is whether we are better off now than we were when Obama took office. It’s a tough question. Many are quick to point out that no, we are not, and they cite some troubling evidence. This month the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the United States’ AAA status one notch, sending a clear message to the rest of world: The nation is now less trustworthy than it once was.

And why the downgrade? The U.S. spends billions of dollars more than it takes in and currently has about 14 million unemployed workers. But, above all, plans to straighten out the nation’s economic mess are murky, and lawmakers in Washington appear to be suffering from permanent political paralysis.

Approval ratings for Obama and his administration are dismal. The president celebrated his 50th birthday this month with an approval rating of only 45 percent, according to a Reuters poll. The same poll also found that 73 percent of Americans surveyed believed that the country was headed in the wrong direction.

But does this all mean that Obama will not be re-elected? Not necessarily — again, the contender from the Republican Party has yet to be revealed. The charisma factor will be vital for this contender: Republicans must nominate someone who has the ability to lift gloomy spirits in our nation. Also, the nominee must be the absolute opposite of Obama. Why change if the challenger’s views and policy ideas are not completely different from those of the president already in the White House?

And, in this dismal economic climate, it won’t be enough for the Republican nominee to criticize the incumbent’s policies. The GOP candidate must outline what he or she will change, offer some specific details and reveal a game plan. Up to now, however, there has not been a Republican whose message on fixing the economy has widely resonated with the American electorate.

It’s pretty clear that the next presidential election won’t be won on themes of fostering stronger national security: Osama bin Laden’s death was announced in May, and it is already old news. No, the hallmark issue of this election will be how to strengthen the faltering economy. Period.

But the U.S. economy is a very peculiar beast — a massive machine over which the president has limited control. The commander-in-chief cannot set salaries for or dictate the investments of private enterprise. He cannot establish how much a city should collect in taxes.

Yet voters sometimes believe, erroneously, that presidents are almighty beings — and many presidents have told me through the years that voters would actually be surprised if they knew how little influence a president has on everyday life. Even if he’d like to, Obama can’t change our economic circumstances on his own. He faces a truly massive challenge: Voters want him to improve the economy, create millions of jobs and, at the same time, spend less. It doesn’t seem feasible. Now, Obama and the Democrats have often argued that they inherited a struggling economy from former President George W. Bush and that, had Obama not implemented economic stimulus measures during his administration’s tenure, the nation would be in much worse shape than it is. Whether that is true or not may be irrelevant, since the concept may be too abstract for some voters. Obama is seen as the master of this economy, and blaming those who came before him will be seen as ineffectual.

Also, many citizens of the world’s only superpower like to think that we are isolated from the economic vulnerabilities of other nations. So it won’t do much good if Obama tries to connect Europe’s financial troubles — specifically Spain’s, Italy’s and Greece’s — to the agonizingly slow growth of the U.S. economy.

In the end, we must remember that elections depend on results. Promises are no longer enough — Obama’s inspiring speeches of 2008 are history. To be re-elected, Obama must somehow achieve positive economic results — specifically the creation of more new jobs — in the next 18 months. If he fails to do so, he might indeed be a one-term president.

So who can defeat Obama? For now, the name is not important. If our economic situation stays the same, America’s moderates and independents who supported Obama at the polls in 2008 are going to start looking at the other options.

By Jorge Ramos Avalos
© 2011 Jorge Ramos
(March 28, 2011)

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Jorge Ramos has been the anchorman for Noticiero Univision since 1986. He writes a weekly column for more than 40 newspapers in the United States and Latin America, and provides daily radio commentary for the Radio Univision network. Ramos also hosts Al Punto, Univision’s weekly public affairs program offering analysis of the week’s top stories, and Fusion’s AMERICA with Jorge Ramos, a news program geared towards young adults. Ramos has won eight Emmy awards and is the author of ten books, most recently, STRANGER - The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era.

A survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center found that Ramos is the second most recognized Latino leader in the country. Latino Leaders magazine chose him as one of “The Ten Most Admired Latinos” and “101 Top Leaders of the Latino Community in the U.S.”