President Obama opens his reelection campaign on Monday with a familiar cast of consultants; an economy that's improving, sluggishly; wars that he is struggling to extract himself from; and an implacable partisan fight in Congress that might shut down the government by week's end.
The Obama campaign made the announcement in an e-mail to supporters, accompanied by a video. Obama will hold several conference calls on Monday with donors and supporters and will begin to raise money for his campaign late next week.
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"We're doing this now because the politics we believe in does not start with expensive TV ads or extravaganzas, but with you -- with people organizing block-by-block, talking to neighbors, co-workers, and friends. And that kind of campaign takes time to build," Obama wrote in the e-mail.
"So even though I'm focused on the job you elected me to do, and the race may not reach full speed for a year or more, the work of laying the foundation for our campaign must start today. We've always known that lasting change wouldn't come quickly or easily. It never does."
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The Republican National Committee responded quickly, blasting Obama's leadership in an e-mail entitled "Back Seat Presidency."
The trappings of the campaign, and even the soothing earth-blue colors of the website, are reminiscent of 2008. The slogans are modified but have the ring of an old song--"Change That Matters," "Progress," "Moving America Forward." But the challenges he faces could not be more different. For one thing, his signature domestic accomplishment, the largest expansion of health insurance ever, remains a flash point, and its future is uncertain. His party is losing ground to Republicans on spending cuts, and his refusal to stand and fight disappoints his own tribe.
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The trajectory of Barack Obama's presidency was supposed to be vertical. He would reform the way Washington worked, restore a sense of pride in government, and bolster the liberal nostrum that government can be effective, efficient, and helpful. He would reform health care and use his Democratic majorities to put a price on carbon. People would feel better.
But he was confronted immediately by the imminent collapse of the economy, had to briefly nationalize the American auto industry, was forced to bail out the engine of capital flows (the big banks), which became particularly unpopular. Correspondingly, the White House never quite understood how much Americans distrusted government to fix the problem that they created.
More than ever, voters think America is declining as an economic force. They feel untethered from their government and mistrust concentrated power. They are not confident than their children will do better than they are doing--the first generation to think this way since professional polling began. Neither party has figured out how capture the attention of these voters.
"People are worried about the future and do not believe things are getting better," said Steve Duprey, a Republican strategist who worked for John McCain in 2012. "The person who can convey that Reaganesque sense of optimism and confidence wins."
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Obama seems boxed in by his Defense Department on Afghanistan, having inherited a general officer corps that almost disdainfully constrains his options. Then there are wars that aren't really wars, like Libya, and crises that suggest the young president operates above his actual weight class.
For all of these problems, though, Obama has enduring strengths. Americans like him, and they like the idea of him. They believe he has their best interests at heart. They seem to understand that he surrounds himself with people who genuinely want to search for solutions, even if they get them wrong. And he has significant accomplishments to his name: the New START arms control treaty with Russia, the advancement of civil rights for gays, an education policy that is promising, a financial reform bill that shows signs of being tougher than expected.
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Assuming that roughly 80 percent of the electorate will vote for their party, Obama's reelection targets can be broken down by demography, propensity to vote and ideology. He can win if he replicates the coalition of young voters, blacks, Latinos, single women, and suburbanites that accepted his nebulous but optimistic message of change. He will have to peel back into the Democratic fold older voters who deserted the Democrats in 2010, and though the growth of minorities in key states can cushion the blow of defecting working class white voters, he needs to construct a floor underneath that constituency. A blowback over Republican efforts to deinstitutionalize labor might help him here.
Where Democrats have plans that address the structural difficulties that middle-class Americans face, Republicans tend to focus on what these voters don't like.
Obama won by 73 electoral votes in 2008. But in 2012 terms, his margin is lower, thanks to the census. The country is growing in the South and the West--and not the coastal West. The flip side: Obama can afford to lose Ohio, or Florida, North Carolina--or all three--and still win the election fairly comfortably. Early, early polls show Obama is doing well enough in Colorado, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, and North Carolina. He's underperforming significantly in Virginia and Indiana.