Reporting from Washington — As he turns to the 2012 presidential campaign that kicks in today, a battered President Obama needs to address two glaring vulnerabilities laid bare by the midterm election: how to fix the economy and rebuild the voting coalition that put him in power.
Inside the White House, aides are making determined preparations to thwart the Republican goal of making him a one-term president.
Look early on for a shift in rhetoric as the first step in a broad effort to court independent voters, whom Obama carried by 8 points in 2008. Independents have since soured on his leadership, unnerved by the deficits and stimulus and bailout packages that the White House said were essential to avoiding a full-fledged depression.
Obama campaigned for president on a message of hope and inclusiveness, but as he tried to rally Democratic voters this fall, he resorted to harsh campaign language. By the end, he was referring to Republicans as "enemies" and insisting that they take a "back seat" to Democrats.
He needs to recapture the bipartisan voice that got him elected in the first place, some of his supporters say.
"In going into such partisan, harsh, class-oriented and divisive rhetoric, he's given up the magic of his candidacy," is the tough assessment of Lanny Davis, White House counsel in the Clinton administration who counts himself an Obama admirer. "This is what he has lost. And I don't mean diminished; I mean lost. It's tragic."
Obama's first chance to display that new tone comes Wednesday with his postelection news conference in the East Room.
Fixing the economy will be a lot tougher. The public wants to see a spurt of job growth: Exit polls taken Tuesday showed that voters were most worried about the economy, with other issues far down the list.
If the economy remains sluggish, "he's going to have trouble," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.
But, on the jobs front, Obama's options are limited. The president has no control over monetary policy and there is little appetite in Congress for additional government spending that would ratchet up a soaring budget deficit.
So Obama is left to hope that the gradual recovery and modest private sector job growth continue, allowing unemployment to fall over the next two years.
Even if the economy is slow to recover, Obama will have a chance next month to temper perceptions of him as a Democratic "tax-and-spender" and position himself so he doesn't shoulder all the blame for the economy. That's when a bipartisan commission will recommend ways to reduce the deficit. By embracing the panel's work, Obama can stake out a position favored by the independents and fiscally conservative Democrats who've abandoned him over the last 22 months.
Though Obama has been weakened, he has some things working in his favor.
One is history. At the same point in his White House tenure, President Clinton enjoyed an unemployment rate of only 5.6%, yet his Gallup Poll approval rating was 46% — about the same as Obama's today. And Clinton, of course, went on to win reelection easily. Same with President Reagan. Unemployment was even higher in 1982 than it is now, yet two years later Reagan won reelection in a landslide — though by that point the jobless rate had fallen to about 7%.
Another is the current state of the Republican Party. White House aides say that with the "tea party" ascendant, Republicans are on a path to nominating an extremist candidate who would be easy to beat in a general election matchup against Obama.
"The Republicans right now are a pretty good midterm party, but they are a disastrous presidential party," said a senior White House aide, who asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly.
"The folks now in charge of the nominating process in the Republican Party are the same people who produced Sharron Angle [ Nevada], Christine O'Donnell [ Delaware], Ken Buck [ Colorado] and Joe Miller [ Alaska]," the aide added. "And you know where the Republican Party nomination goes through: Iowa. So, imagine now, in a tea party era, who wins that."
For the moment, Obama must adapt to a brand new political dynamic: a Republican-controlled House. The GOP's congressional victories Tuesday are both an opportunity and a danger for the White House. Armed with subpoena power, Republicans can demand records and sworn testimony in open-ended investigations. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) has said he'll send off a batch of letters to the Obama administration asking for information as early as Wednesday.
But Obama can also use the resurgent Republicans as a foil — much as Clinton did when Newt Gingrich and his forces gained control of the House in 1994. If there's gridlock, the president can blame the Republicans. If the economy falters, he can say it's up to the GOP to offer solutions. For months, Obama has said the Republicans have watched the action from the sidelines. Now he'll argue they have no choice but to get in the game.