Year End Reflections on the Political Pitfalls, and Opportunities in the 2012 Presidential Election

12/26/2011 03:32 pm ET | Updated Feb 25, 2012

Several media pundits and bloggers, including previous posts by me, have commented that the presidential election of 2012 may be the most important election since that of Abraham Lincoln and FDR's initial election of 1932. The candidate and party chosen to lead the country could define the future of our nation for the balance of the 21st Century.

Former Rep. Alan Grayson from Florida framed the issue of Obama's reelection this way. Referring to the Republican Party opposition in Congress to Obama's initiatives he said:

They understand that if Barack Obama were somehow able to cure hunger in the world the Republicans would blame him for overpopulation. They understand that if Barack Obama could somehow bring about world peace they would blame him for destroying the defense industry. In fact, they understand that if Barack Obama has a BLT sandwich tomorrow for lunch, they will try to ban bacon.

At the end of the day (who knows?), his shorthand political and humorous framing of the issue may be correct. Meanwhile, the country's attention is focused on Iowa, the first Republican presidential primary.

Each day we are provided with a daily dose of polling data reflecting the relative probable priority position of various candidates. These "results" are then contrasted or measured against the polling popularity or lack of popularity of President Obama. The major deficiency of this data is that it doesn't poll the most important unknown factor likely to affect the outcome in Iowa and the 2012 national election: the widespread anger and disenchantment of a large part of the electorate with both parties on the state of our nation.

The president and his campaign re-election advisors presumably have developed a re-election "playbook" based on either Romney, Gingrich or another Republican being the GOP's standard-bearer. This maybe a major political "pitfall." This assumes "politics as usual." All indications are that the 2012 Presidential election will not be politics as usual.

Bob Dylan's lyrics ask the timeless question:

How many times can a man turn his head
pretending he just doesn't see?
How many times must a man look up
before he can see the sky?
How many ears must one man have
before he can hear people cry?
How many deaths will it take till he knows
that too many people have died?

The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Time Magazine, in declining to choose a "Person of The Year," recognized this phenomenon (which I describe above as the "unknown factor" likely to affect the outcome of the 2012 Presidential election). The editors of Time were astute enough to identify it: The street protester participating in the various "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations occurring nationwide. Time Magazine wrote:

The protests have marked the rise of a new generation... Technology allowed us to watch, and it spread the virus of protest, but this was not a wired revolution; it was a human one, of hearts and minds, the oldest technology of all.

Everywhere this year, people have complained about the failure of traditional leadership and the fecklessness of institutions. Politicians cannot look beyond the next election, and they refuse to make hard choices. That's one reason we did not select an individual this year. But leadership has come from the bottom of the pyramid, not the top. For capturing and highlighting a global sense of restless promise, for upending governments and conventional wisdom, for combining the oldest of techniques with the newest of technologies to shine a light on human dignity and, finally, for steering the planet on a more democratic though sometimes more dangerous path for the 21st century, the Protester is TIME's 2011 Person of the Year.

Almost all the protests this year began as independent affairs, without much encouragement from or endorsement by existing political parties or opposition bigwigs. All over the world, the protesters of 2011 share a belief that their countries' political systems and economies have grown dysfunctional and corrupt -- sham democracies rigged to favor the rich and powerful and prevent significant change. They are fervent small-d democrats. Two decades after the final failure and abandonment of communism, they believe they're experiencing the failure of hell-bent megascaled crony hypercapitalism and pine for some third way, a new social contract.

Yes, the state of the economy will be the political stage of 2012. But the presumed players of Obama and the Republican Party's eventual standard-bearer may be less important than even they currently contemplate. Even assuming an improved unemployment picture of possibly 7.5 percent or less in November 2012, the real issues will be what columnist Tom Friedman calls, "aspirational" leadership; and, whether a presidential candidate's plan for the next four years will be commensurate with the magnitude of the urgent problems we face.

Absent a serious response to the issues raised by Occupy Wall Street, the Democratic and Republican parties invite the intervention of a third-party candidate who commits himself to urgently address those issues that the two parties seem only to repeatedly "kick the can" down the road. Dismissal of this as a realistic possibility by Axelrod, Plouffe, Messina and President Obama would be a major strategic mistake.