Debt, Jobs Could Hurt Obama in 2012 Campaign

Obama will face a series of challenges in his presidential re-election bid.

By + More
Video: The Presidential Race Is On

President Obama made it official: He's running for re-election in 2012. This was no surprise, but his announcement came in an unorthodox manner, in a video and E-mail to supporters rather than the traditional speech or news conference with the mainstream media. It served notice that Obama will use some of the same highly sophisticated techniques that brought him victory in 2008, involving intense grass-roots organizing, technology, and social media, with the goal of reassembling his 2008 majority of new voters, young people, women, African-Americans, and Latinos. And it's widely thought among Democratic strategists that Obama is aiming to raise $1 billion for his re-election effort, which would set a record. His 2008 fund-raising set a record at $750 million.

[Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP candidates.]

But technology, tactics, and fundraising are only part of what will be required for victory. Obama's message will also be crucial, and that's still evolving.

In 2008, Obama billed himself as the candidate of hope and change, the man who would reform Washington and end the polarizing, counterproductive ways of the capital. Today, he is the leader of the Washington Establishment, and he will have to, in effect, defend the status quo. Instead of going on the attack against Washington insiders, as he did last time, Obama will now have to explain why Washington still seems so dysfunctional.

Perhaps the most important challenge for Obama is to improve the unemployment rate, which stands at 8.8 percent. That's somewhat lower than it's been in two years, but still too high for many Americans who are deeply worried about their jobs and their future. And the unemployment rate in several key swing states, such as Florida, Ohio, and Michigan, is much higher than the national average.

In terms of demographic groups, Obama is looking in particular to mobilize the army of young people who flocked to his 2008 campaign because he seemed like an agent of fundamental change. Young people still have a favorable impression of Obama. In fact, even though his overall approval rating is stuck at about 45 percent, according to the Gallup Poll, 55 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds approve of his job performance, a 6-point increase since October, according to a new survey by Harvard's Institute of Politics. This gives him a strong base from which to work.

Obama is also hoping to win majority support again among Latinos, one of the fastest-growing segments of the population, but there is no more important group to Obama than female voters, who constitute more than half of the electorate. It's significant that the video announcing his candidacy for re-election featured a Latino woman, a white woman, a black woman, a college student, and only one white middle-aged man. And Obama has just named Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida as the new chair of the Democratic National Committee, making a woman the face of the party. [See a slide show of the 11 cities with the most Hispanics.]

For their part, the Republicans are zeroing in on the economy as their chief issue. On the same day as Obama's announcement of his candidacy, the Republican National Committee sponsored a new Web ad entitled "Hope Isn't Hiring." The ad accuses Obama of piling up "debts we can't afford," estimated by the RNC at $14.1 trillion, and failing to create enough jobs. "Simply put, Americans can't afford four more years of Barack Obama," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in an E-mail to reporters. Priebus argued that Obama has not been a strong leader, allowing the budget negotiations to drag on without clarifying his preferences.

Many possible GOP presidential challengers make the same point, but it's interesting that few of them have actually declared their full-fledged candidacies yet. They want to wait as long as possible because once they announce, the scrutiny from the media and the Democrats will be intense, and they will be under pressure to take positions on issues that are polarizing and that could antagonize large segments of the electorate.