Harsh realities slam into 2016 race

Story highlights

  • David Gergen: Phase one of the presidential campaign may be about to end
  • Economic woes, the Pope's visit and the Iran debate could scramble the campaign, he says

David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been a White House adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at The Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @david_gergen. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Ring down the curtain on Act I of the 2016 presidential race!

David Gergen
With financial markets now on a precipice and other public events about to unfold, we are entering a new, more serious phase in politics that could easily scramble the pack.
Context matters enormously in leadership, shaping our perceptions of who is well suited for the times. Think back to Winston Churchill: In the late 1930s Brits hated the idea of another war and favored appeasers like Neville Chamberlain. As Churchill railed against the dangers of Hitler, he seemed old, cantankerous and washed up. But when war came, Brits swiftly made Churchill their leader because suddenly they needed his strength, self-confidence, and capacity to rally the country.
    This summer Americans have been mostly amused -- or appalled -- by the quality of early presidential campaigning. But we haven't yet been serious. Stories about Donald Trump's antics, whether to repeal the 14th Amendment, or even about email servers have been our beach reading, a diversion from the weightier issues of our times.
    Now, however, the perilous nosedive of stock markets around the world should jolt us back to a harsher reality. We probably won't know for a week or more whether markets will settle down or whether they will take a damaging toll on the underlying world economy. Experts say the U.S. has never imported a recession so that it is likely to continue growing but our economy could inch forward at an even slower rate.
    All this should put heavy pressure on the presidential candidates to finally engage in a deeper, more thoughtful debate about how to get the economy moving again. As Mortimer Zuckerman pointed out in the Wall Street Journal last week, the campaign so far has mostly skirted the central issue of economic growth.
    How well a presidential candidate can handle the economy can be crucial to a campaign. Remember the fall of 2008: When the economy was collapsing, the more experienced candidate, John McCain, seemed to be all thumbs while the rookie, Barack Obama, had a firm hand on the tiller. Obama won in a sweep.
    The next 30 days will bring at least two other public events that could shape our sense of who would be best in the White House. In mid-September, Pope Francis will visit Cuba for four days and then spend five days in the U.S. Among his events here will be a meeting with President Obama, an address at the U.N. and a mass in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families.
    Given the strong stance he has already taken, we can be sure that he will sharply challenge the U.S. and others to deal more aggressively with income inequality. And we can be sure that the Pope, one of the most respected leaders in the world today, will receive blanket media coverage. Almost inevitably, pressure will rise on presidential candidates to be more forthcoming about ways they will address the issue, another debate they have so far avoided.
    September will also bring a climactic debate and vote in Congress on the Iranian nuclear agreement. GOP presidential candidates are uniformly opposed to the current agreement, but they have not yet spoken with clarity or reassurance about a better alternative. September could flush them out of hiding. And maybe, just maybe, we will hear more from Hillary Clinton about her overall strategy for the Middle East.
    So, we have three big events coming up that will test the candidates in ways they haven't been tested so far: looming problems in our economy, income inequality and America's global leadership. And in such a volatile world, who knows what else will arise?
    This next phase of the campaign could be a breakthrough opportunity or the undoing of a candidate, especially for those now at the top of the stack. Trump, for example, exudes personal strength -- which Americans will crave even more -- but can he make himself seem "presidential"? This is not a time when voters will take a risk with recklessness. The seriousness of Jeb Bush will be more prized a month from now than today, but can he get fired up and emotionally connect?
    On the Democratic side, Mrs. Clinton has put forward the most interesting economic proposals of any of the candidates. She can now come forward with a bevy of heavyweight economic advisers to tell us how she would navigate the financial storm and narrow income gaps. Her experience at the center will be even more of a positive. But as Ruth Marcus argued in the Washington Post, she cannot win full attention until she becomes totally transparent and less combative about those emails.
    It is not clear whether coming events will play into the hands of Bernie Sanders -- they should on inequality -- but they should certainly give Joe Biden more of an opening. A man who was at Obama's side in coming out of the recession, friend of working people, a good Catholic -- those could be high cards for him.
    In short, we are about to become more serious about what it takes to be an effective president. It's not a moment too soon in a campaign full of sound and fury, but one which hasn't yet signified who is best to tackle the tough issues of our time.