As Casey Stengel said, "Never make predictions, especially about the future." But with no key electoral contests on tap for 2011 and the most conservative and Republican House of Representatives in decades facing off against a liberal Democratic president in the midst of the nation's worst economic crisis in three generations, the contours of the major political landscape in 2011 are already etched in the sand.
So, mindful of Stengel's advice, here are five big issues to keep an eye on in the coming year, in reverse order of importance.
5. WHAT HAPPENS TO OBAMACARE? Outside of the financial/budgetary crisis, this will be the major domestic issue over the next year, as the House Republicans pass bill after bill to eviscerate the Obama health-care plan — both through outright repeal or by denying funding for key provisions. It's all for show, of course, since the Senate won't pass them. This will all be played out against the backdrop of a certain appeal of the law's constitutionality to the Supreme Court, where Justice Anthony Kennedy — the swing vote — will essentially decide which way the 5-4 decision will go.
Yes, Obamacare has some major individual provisions that almost all voters like. And yes, the overall law is still unpopular. But what hurt President Obama the most politically with the health-care plan is that he pursued it seemingly to the exclusion of focusing on anything else, especially the economy. Could the same thing happen to the House Republicans? With many of the law's provisions not taking effect for several years, the debate over health care will continue unresolved until either the Supreme Court looks at it, or the 2012 election is held. If Obama is re-elected, it survives. If not, most of it will be repealed — if the Supreme Court hasn't struck it down first.
4. WHAT DOES SARAH DO? Whether Sarah Palin runs for president in 2012 will be the major electoral story of 2011, if only because recent rule changes pushing the primary calendar back will allow her (and others) to wait until the end of the year before making a decision.
This will have the effect of draining oxygen from all the other challengers, essentially freezing the GOP nomination race in place and making it difficult for any relatively unknown candidate to gain traction. (Goodbye, Tim Pawlenty.) Her position as the titular GOP spokesman will also benefit Obama in the short run since, as unpopular as he may become, she's far more so.
But the truth is that the Republicans would be well served by an eventual Palin candidacy. Yes, she's unelectable in a general contest. But to paraphrase LBJ, better to have her "doing her thing" inside the tent than outside. A GOP run by her likely forecloses an independent candidacy that could wreck the party's chances in the general. And, if one of the other contenders can defeat her in the primaries, he or she emerges as a far stronger candidate for having tamed the threat from within.