President Barack Obama and his eventual Republican opponent will spend much of the year focusing on who is best equipped to create jobs and improve the economy, with Americans' ambivalent public views about China's economic rise a possible centerpiece.
Public opinion surveys suggest the American public is quite receptive to anti-China rhetoric, particularly when it comes to that country's emergence as an economic power.
More than six in 10 adults see China's economic expansion hurting the United States, according to a November CBS News/New York Times poll, a sentiment that spans traditional partisan divides. About as many called competition with China a "major threat" to the economic well being of the United States in a December Pew Research Center poll, with nearly nine in 10 saying China is at least a minor threat. The intensity of China antipathy is limited. A slender 12 percent in the CBS poll classified China as an enemy, with four times as many saying the nation is "friendly, but not an ally."
The target: Non-college whites
Tough talk on China could play a particularly strong role as candidates try to court white voters who lack college degrees. Occupying the front cover of the latest Atlantic magazine, many of these voters have personally experienced the impact of China's rise, seeing manufacturing jobs go overseas. The December Pew poll found concern about China's threat to the U.S. economy peaked among whites without college educations.
Whites without college degrees also make up large swaths of the electorate in critical "rust belt" states, many of which are up for grabs in the 2012 election. In 2008, non-college whites made up at least half of voters in Ohio and Michigan and nearly four in 10 voters in Pennsylvania. Obama lost non-college whites by 18 percentage points nationally in 2008, and he trails among this group in a contest with Mitt Romney by 20 points in a December Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Part of the reason China may receive negative attention is that Americans have yet to decisively blame Obama for the nation's continued economic troubles. A December CBS News poll found 12 percent blaming the Obama administration for the economic conditions; the same number blamed Wall Street, while slightly more blamed Congress (16 percent) and the Bush administration (22 percent). Nearly a quarter blamed all of these groups.
Republicans candidates have focused sharply on the president and the economy, blaming him for continued high unemployment and slow job creation. But they haven't advocated a more friendly relationship with China, especially on the issue of trade. In one example, though critical of Obama's approach, Romney favors an even stronger stance, opting to designate China as a currency manipulator and attacking "unfair trade practices."
A major undercurrent to the 2012 election is the sense that American influence in the world is on the wane. More than seven in 10 said this in an October poll by Time magazine and SRBI, and most of this group said China's rise has played a role. Romney has run with this sentiment -- offering his candidacy as an antithesis to Obama's economically distressed first term -- labeling his jobs plan "believe in America" and his foreign policy approach "an American century."
The patriotic tones sound quite similar to Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" campaign in 1984, which was convincing thanks to a booming economic recovery after twin recessions during his first presidential term. Obama can't boast of such booming growth, but would certainly like to claim credit for sustained economic improvement if the unemployment rate continues to fall this year.
Whether China comes to the forefront of the 2012 election or not, Americans' belief that China is hurting the U.S. economy looks to play a larger role in U.S. politics in the future.