It's the first of October, and here's your October surprise: October is already over. So is the first week of November. The campaign is over. The voters have decided. The only remaining step is watching as the clock strikes midnight after Election Day is done and Mitt Romney disappears from the American political scene like Cinderella's coach.
Poof. What was that fellow's name again?
This is a surprise because the United States remains a deeply divided country politically. Opposition to the president remains strong, and his record remains spotty at best. It is a surprise because the past few weeks have seen bad news on the economic front and the unraveling of the story that Barack Obama is a foreign-policy master.
The race should be closer. By some reasoning, Romney should even be ahead. Heck, if Romney had gone on vacation to Lake Winnipesaukee for the past three weeks, he might be. But every time events have turned against the president -- from weak job numbers to bad manufacturing results, from the debacle in Libya to the rapid deterioration in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and U.S.-Israel relations -- Romney has come to Obama's rescue with a boneheaded statement or some distracting gaffe of his own.
So now the swing-state polls suggest it is highly unlikely that the Republican candidate can orchestrate a victory. Behind by 9 percentage points in the latest Columbus Dispatch poll in the state he must win, Ohio, and trailing in eight of the nine Florida polls tracked by RealClearPolitics, Mitt has no clear path to 270 electoral votes. The media will spin this election up and down between now and Nov. 6 to try to create the illusion of drama, but stick a fork in it: The Romney goose is cooked.
Although this might be a letdown for political junkies, it is a relief for normal people who can tune out the incessant, mind-numbing, serially prevaricating television spots for the candidates and get on with their lives. Better to look ahead instead and start doing the planning for 2013 that the Obama White House, senior-level sources tell me, is not really doing right now. They're caught up in the election, and as a result they are letting a lot of big issues slide.
The result is that next year could be momentous on many fronts and even destabilizing on some. Let's give ourselves a head start and begin to consider just five of the most important challenges with international implications that Obama will face in the wake of his reelection victory:
Rebuilding his team: Out the door go Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and, if Defense Secretary Leon Panetta can push aside those trying to get him to stay on a little while into the new term, he will join them. So too will leave many other less visible members of an Obama team who are burned out, ready to make money, and/or disaffected. One senior official told me, "If Obama had his way, he'd probably do without having a cabinet altogether." He was referring to this White House's renowned neglect of its team, its tendency to micromanage or simply shut down initiatives from its cabinet departments, and the fact that a handful of people around the president think they can do it all themselves. (While everyone was stewing over why U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice offered an assessment of the Libya situation that was inconsistent with readily apparent reality, isn't it more offensive that this past weekend the White House thought it appropriate to have one of its political operatives, David Plouffe, serving as its spokesperson on sensitive foreign-policy issues … again?) Getting new talent in will be almost as tough as getting folks confirmed by a still deeply fractured Senate. Yet, much of Obama's legacy will depend on whether he finally becomes the leader of a strong Team of Rivals or whether he will opt for a Team of Staffers -- bland, back-bench choices who won't make waves and will require the president to do all the heavy lifting.