William Galston

Given the blizzard of White House briefings to eager reporters in recent days, we already have some sense of what the president will say in tonight’s State of the Union address. But in considering the speech, we shouldn’t forget to judge it in its full political context—most of all, the fact that this is an election year. Here are five things to listen for: For better or worse, an incumbent president’s record is at the heart of his reelection prospects. President Obama cannot run away from his record; he must run on it.

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Unless something dramatic happens—fast—the general election will soon be upon us, with Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee, and President Obama fighting for a second term. But if the primary season has proven largely predictable, the next phase of the presidential campaign will likely have more than a few surprises in store. Romney and Obama will be competing on a playing field more polarized along partisan and ideological lines than at any time in recent history.

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There is good news and bad news for Mitt Romney out of New Hampshire. The good news is that he won an impressively broad-based victory that did nothing to slow his drive for the Republican presidential nomination. But it also exposed a vulnerability that could soon prove debilitating, if not fatal, to his candidacy. While Romney is not yet a prohibitive favorite, he will be if he wins in South Carolina. And he will win, as John McCain did in 2008, if multiple candidates to his right divide the anybody-but-Mitt vote.

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The results of the Iowa caucuses illuminate the basic structure of today’s Republican Party and offer clues about what’s to come between now and the end of January. Pew’s “political typology,” the latest iteration of which appeared last May, provides the best point of departure. That report used a statistical technique known as cluster analysis to identify four major pro-Republican groups: Staunch Conservatives (11 percent of registered voters), Main Street Conservatives (14 percent), Libertarians (10 percent), and “Disaffecteds” (11 percent).

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It’s very tempting to dismiss the Iowa caucuses as much ado about almost nothing: As Iowa goes, so goes . . . Iowa, and little more. But, despite its inherent myopia, the early part of the 2012 primary season has managed to be clarifying. Indeed, by combining the most recent survey evidence, we can learn a great deal about the state of the contemporary Republican Party. Put simply, its dominant concerns are economic—especially the federal budget deficit.

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The Republican field is crowded and fluid right now, but it won’t be for long. By January 11th, there will be at most three remaining contenders, and we’ll have a much clearer understanding of how the race will develop. There are seven candidates with a pulse, and only six of them—divided into two groups of three—are competing in Iowa. For two of the three denizens of the lower tier—Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum—failing to finish among the top three on January 3rd would spell the effective end of their candidacies.

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President Obama’s much-heralded speech in Osawatomie, Kansas focused on inequality, which, he argued, is undermining our prosperity, weakening our democracy, and shrinking our middle class. While there’s a serious data-based argument to be made in favor of that view, recent surveys suggest that most Americans don’t share it.

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Over the next three weeks, the heat-to-light ratio in the press coverage of the Iowa caucuses will rise steadily. Here are a few basics to keep in mind. 1. Iowa is a flawed leading indicator, especially for Republicans. Of the past five contests without an incumbent Republican president, the Iowa winner has gone on to receive the nomination only twice—in 1996 (Dole) and 2000 (George W. Bush). On the other hand, Iowa typically winnows the field and seems likely to do so again.

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Over the weekend I had the privilege of sitting in on the 8th annual Saban Forum, a high-level, Brookings-sponsored dialogue between Israeli and American officials (current and former) along with journalists, intellectuals, and representatives from other countries in the Middle East.

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As the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced a fall in the unemployment rate from 9.0 to 8.6 percent, it noted that a contraction of the labor force accounted for more than half the reduction in the number of unemployed.

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