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With reelection bid, President Obama aims for grassroots encore

Obama formally announces his 2012 reelection bid, looking to re-create the groundswell that swept him into office the first time around -- an effort as dedicated although perhaps less starry-eyed.

April 04, 2011|By James Oliphant | Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Four years ago, Barack Obama was an upstart in the midst of becoming a phenomenon. Now, he's an established juggernaut with the power of the presidency at his back. But his reelection bid, formally announced Monday, seeks to re-create the grassroots effort -- the armies of volunteers, the flood of small donations, the spillover rallies -- that marked his first campaign.

Few things are more laden with cynicism than modern American politics, but in the video released Monday by Obama's reelection campaign, the president clearly is asking the band to get back together for one more show -- perhaps a little less starry-eyed but, ideally, as dedicated.

And, yes, the H-word is making a return engagement.

"I just saw the energy and hope he had for this country," says a student named Mike from New York. "Even though I couldn't vote at the time, I knew that someday I'd be able to help reelect him. And that's what I plan on doing."

Although Obama's campaign again will be looking to an energized wave of young activists to help propel the operation, politically voters in the video such as Ed from North Carolina likely will be more crucial to whether it succeeds.

Ed, a white, middle-aged man from a state that Obama surprisingly captured in 2008, says that although he doesn't agree with Obama "on everything, I respect him and I trust him."

Obama's "stay the course" pitch will be aimed squarely at those swing voters.

The voices in the video provide a virtual map of the coming key battlegrounds. Along with Ed, there's Gladys, a Latina suburban mother from Nevada; Katherine, an idealistic white mom from Colorado; and Alice, an African American woman from Michigan who says, "President Obama is one person. Plus, he's got a job. We're paying him to do a job. So we can't just say, 'Hey, can you take some time off and come and get us all energized, so we'd better figure it out.' "

The West, including Latino-voter-heavy states such as Nevada and Colorado, and the Midwest rust belt will be fundamental to Obama's chances, as well as duplicating the massive African American turnout in urban and suburban areas.

The video also is strikingly subdued. There's no sign of the president, no talk of his accomplishments, no citation to the GOP or warnings about the "tea party" movement. Instead, the focus is on everyday people, who speak in forthcoming ways about some of their concerns. One voter even uses the word "nervous" to describe her feelings about the 2012 campaign -- an anxiety-generating term that seems an unlikely choice for inclusion in a kickoff moment. No doubt the choice, along with the decision to let the occasion pass without a public event, was deliberate, a sober message for sober times.

But of course, the call to grassroots arms masks a well-oiled political machine that is just beginning to crank up, one that could net the incumbent president a record $1 billion in campaign donations. And Monday's announcement, in truth, is largely procedural -- so that the money can start rolling in.

Obama will have help in that regard. Two former White House aides are likely to form the kind of independent political group that helped Republicans rake in millions in last year's congressional elections. More are sure to follow.

Obama is expected to hold a series of early fundraisers in Chicago, San Francisco, the Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and New York. Some will cost as much as $35,800 to attend.

The president's cast of campaign advisers looks remarkably similar to the last time around and will be spearheaded by David Axelrod, who left his White House post to mastermind the reelection from Chicago. Former White House communications director Robert Gibbs also will be on board, provided he does not, as rumored, take a job with Facebook.

The day-to-day operations in Chicago will be run by Jim Messina, the former White House deputy chief of staff. But another important asset will be Julianna Smoot, a D.C. insider whose short stint as White House social secretary deepened a network of national fundraising contacts.

At the White House, Obama's messaging will be guided by David Plouffe, an operative who was critical to the president's mobilization efforts in the first campaign, and it will Plouffe's job, working with new Chief of Staff William Daley, to keep the president's focus on the issue that voters say they care about the most: the economy.

Obama's entry in the fold comes when the GOP field is still belatedly taking shape. One announced contender, Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, wasted no time in responding to the president's announcement.

And whereas Obama's video was filled with his trademark positive messaging, Pawlenty, not surprisingly, is instead appealing to the deep fault line of unrest that runs through the electorate. One shot in his video shows lightning flashing over the White House in almost biblical fashion.

The jittery 35-second clip focuses on economic themes including high gas prices and foreclosure rates, set against a dramatic musical score.

"How can we win the future when we're losing the present?" Pawlenty asks in the video, riffing on Obama's "win the future" theme of January's State of the Union address.

"In order to take a new direction, it's going to take a new president," he says.

As they say -- it's on.

james.oliphant@latimes.com
Melanie Mason of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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