By Paul Smalera
The opinions expressed are his own. 

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, and the entire Republican presidential field before them, have enjoyed painting Barack Obama as a European-style socialist, an apologizer, an appeaser, a president who is ceding America’s place in the world. Their stump speeches and debate soundbites seem to always end with some variety of the phrase, “when I’m your president, I’ll make America great again.” It would seem the nation is hungry for that kind of leadership; after all, polls now say that Obama’s job approval ratings are worse than Carter’s at the same point in his term. The game clock would seem to be running down on his re-election hopes. But what if it turns out we’ve been reading the scoreboard wrong, and Team Obama already has the lead? What if, by the time Americans get to vote, less than a year from now, America is already great again?

Coming off the heels of a nasty recession and horrible intertwined crises in banking, housing and economic confidence, every decision President Obama and his team made on the country’s way forward has come under intense scrutiny. Inevitably, the left has called some decisions, like the smaller-than-hoped-for size of his stimulus bill, weak sauce. The right has decried everything this administration did, as with health care reform, as lurching us towards socialism. Even Rockefeller Republicans have changed their spots in order to make libertarian arguments, as when Mitt Romney argued in the New York Times that the auto-industry bailout was wrong and Detroit should have been allowed to go broke.

One shouldn’t feel bad for Obama — this kind of scrutiny comes with the job, after all. But the criticism his administration has endured from all sides has seemed particularly craven, perhaps because the stakes have been so very high these past few years. And yet, the political capital invested in his centrist, negotiated policies are now paying dividends. Perhaps Bill Clinton was a smoother operator, but it’s beginning to look a lot like Obama’s triangulation of policy, politics and the press is working, and that may deliver him to a political comeback and a 1996-style election victory.

Take the economy: Unemployment numbers are still bad, but they are improving, reaching levels not seen since the very start of the crisis. GDP growth has been anemic but it long ago stopped contracting, as it was when Obama first took office, thanks to effects of the global financial crisis and US credit crunch. Asset management firm BlackRock, meanwhile, predicts that GDP growth will increase in the last quarter, hitting the 3% mark that puts the economy beyond “treading water” territory into real growth that companies large and small will invest in, both in terms of equipment and real estate upgrades, and new hiring. Macroeconomic Advisors puts the figure at 3.7%.

The GOP would love to challenge Obama on foreign policy, but here he is nearly unimpeachable. He’s steadfastly refused to commit U.S. resources to overseas adventures, resisting the “nation-building” that candidate George W. Bush had promised to not engage in. He corrected the Bush-era excesses by pulling out of Iraq and announcing a timetable to withdraw from Afghanistan. If a president John McCain had used drone strikes as much as Obama did, Republicans everywhere would be crowing about the president’s use of “smart power”  in the War on Terror.