President Barack Obama is crossing swords with potential Republican rivals and demanding demoralised Democrats wake up as he plots what appears a narrow but possible path to re-election.
Hemmed in by an obstinate Congress, Republicans who want to make him a one-termer and a sickly economy, Obama is waging a kind of private primary campaign to shore up his standing with Democratic Party power blocks.
The strategy appears to be a recognition that the president, sullied by economic malaise and Washington gridlock, cannot run again as the transformative, charismatic figure who swept to power in 2008.
While Obama crushed Republican John McCain in 2008, his path to victory this time looks tougher and relies on him turning out Democratic base voters and picking off a number of swing states.
“It is about the only strategy left to him politically,” said John Straayer, a Colorado State University political science professor.
Analysts said Obama’s base vote strategy is reminiscent of the approach Karl Rove framed for president George W Bush in 2004, which produced a slim Republican victory.
After a summer of political feuds which soured the public on both parties, Obama is accusing Republicans of cozying up to the rich.
His foes, Obama told a fundraiser in Washington state on Sunday, back policies that would “cripple America in meeting the challenges of the 21st century”.
The president has also thrown himself into the febrile Republican nominating race, bemoaning a debate crowd which booed a gay soldier in Iraq and cheered the idea of a man dying without health insurance.
Stepped up travel schedule
“That’s not reflective of who we are,” Obama said. “This is a choice about the fundamental direction of our country.”
The move reflected Obama’s need to portray Republicans as extreme and unacceptable choice, in the knowledge that with unemployment not expected to dip much below the current 9.1%, he can’t run on economic recovery.
In a stepped up travel schedule, the president is engaging sections of the Democratic party’s traditional power base, rural voters, the midwestern middle class, Hispanics and African Americans.
In an appeal Saturday to African Americans, who have suffered disproportionately in the economic crisis, he invoked Martin Luther King, vowing to “press on” for change.
“Put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying,” he told the Congressional Black Caucus.
The process is reminiscent of a primary nominating race where candidates court party power bases, then track to the centre in a general election.
Obama’s challenge will be to capture independent voters, who often swing presidential elections but deserted him after 2008.
Polls show moderates support Obama’s idea of requiring the wealthy Americans to pay more in taxes to support his $447bn jobs program and social programs for the elderly.
Tony Robinson, a professor of politics at the University of Colorado said Obama’s populist approach may attract some independents who feel Obama has capitulated too much to Republicans.
“He has been seen as a weak president … that is particularly what is turning off swing voters,” Robinson said.
Fresh and transformational
In the process of piling up electoral votes, state-by-state to reach a winning score of 270, swing states, like Florida and Ohio will be crucial.
But changing demographics have expanded the political battleground in recent years, and brought more states, like once solidly Republican Virginia and Colorado, where Obama travelled on Tuesday, into play.
With its rocky mountains and empty plains, America still feels like a young, frontier nation in Colorado. Here, dreams of change danced in the eyes of young first time voters in vast Obama rallies in the state in 2008.
But disappointment that Obama failed to remake poisoned Washington politics and has struggled to revive the economy, is reflected in rocky approval ratings in a state many analysts believe he must win.
In a Gallup poll, Obama’s approval rating in Colorado averaged 44%, in the first six months of this year, in a state which he won with 53% of the vote in 2008.
Robinson said Obama supporters in Colorado fell for political “magic” in 2008.
“He spoke to something that was fresh… and transformational,” but the reality of his presidency was more prosaic and dismayed his supporters, Robinson said.
In 2012 in Colorado, Obama will need to repair his standing with Hispanics, a key Democratic voting bloc dismayed that he has yet to pass immigration reform and revive his bond with youth voters.