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National Politics|By Amy Walter, January 23, 2013

Of all the issues raised in President Obama’s inaugural speech, there was one noticeable omission: the state of the economy. The issue that defined the 2012 campaign – and remains the most important concern for most Americans – was only briefly touched in the President’s address on that chilly Monday afternoon.

So, while debate and discussion over issues like gay rights, immigration, gun violence and the environment may define 2013-2014, the health – or lack thereof – of the economy will define 2016.

In his address, the President promoted what he preached on the campaign trail. “America’s prosperity,” he said, “must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.” We should expect him to tackle the specifics around this vision in his mid-February State of the Union address.

But, it is the upcoming battles on the budget, the debt ceiling and spending cuts known as the “sequester” that are going to have much more of an impact on the political fortunes of both parties than any fight over gun control, the environment or immigration.

While Americans are feeling a bit better about the state of the economy, they remain a pessimistic lot. The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed just 35 percent of Americans viewed the country headed on the right track, while 57 percent said it was headed on the wrong track. Four years ago, 59 percent thought the country was headed on the wrong track and 26 percent said things were headed in the right direction.

The most recent ABC/Washington Post poll gave President Obama with a 50 percent approval rating on his handling of economic issues – his highest rating since early 2009. Yet, the most recent Bloomberg Consumer Confidence Survey found that “the share saying the U.S. economy is improving dropped to the lowest since September.”

In looking through lots of recent polling, the Huffington Post’s Mark Blumenthal writes that “optimism about Obama and his policies is distinct from views about the potential for robust economic growth or an improvement in the political climate on Capitol Hill. On the economy, for example, Americans are generally divided on whether the next year will be better or worse, with less optimism (as well as more variation in the results from survey to survey). “

In other words, Obama’s personal popularity may be enough to keep his own job ratings above water, but it won’t be enough to keep his party in the White House in 2016. The most important legacy that the president can leave the Democrats who wish to succeed him is a successful and growing economy.

There’s little doubt that the president wants to leave behind a cultural legacy – one that includes expanded civil rights for gay Americans, stricter gun laws and a more robust effort to battle climate change. And it’s here where Obama already has majority of Americans on his side. Some examples:

- “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science,” said President Obama, “but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”

United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll: 57 percent of respondents agreed that “global climate change is increasing the likelihood that the U.S. will be hit by storms such as Hurricane Sandy.”

- “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law -- for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

NBC/Wall Street Journal poll: 51 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, while 55 percent said they would support a same-sex marriage law if it passed in their state.

- “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity -- until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country

AP/Gfk Poll: 62 percent favor a legal way for illegal immigrants already in the U.S. to become U.S. citizens.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled about how Republicans cannot afford to be on the wrong side of these cultural/social issues in 2016. And, this is true. Even so, the ability to show a command of and competency on creating jobs and growing the economy remains the most important measure for success in 2014 and 2016. As Republican pollster David Winston wrote in the aftermath of the 2012 campaign, “Republicans have to become the party of economic growth again, and effectively engage in developing and advocating policies that reflect that.” Democrats’ too have to start to figure out who they want to be as a party – not just culturally, but economically. Where the economy sits in 2016 will tell us just how closely the ultimate nominee will want to embrace Obama’s economic vision.