President Obama meets with California leaders -- Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris,… (Kevin Lamarque, Reuters )
President Obama begins a two-day swing through California on Wednesday that underscores the conflicting roles the state plays in presidential politics: Its strong Democratic bent means it will once again be written off by both sides during the 2012 general election, but the trove of supporters here will once again be mined to bolster Obama's efforts elsewhere.
"He doesn't have to campaign here to win," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont-McKenna College. "He does need to tap the deep resources of Democratic political money, and he needs to inspire volunteers."
Last time around, California donors gave $78 million to Obama's campaign. Tens of thousands of Californians volunteered, phoning voters and flooding crucial swing states such as New Mexico and Nevada.
But Obama faces obstacles that his historic candidacy didn't face four years ago, including a recalcitrant economy and a vein of disenchantment among some of his most passionate supporters.
"I'm not going to lie — there are a lot of people I know who … do complain to me that he hasn't done enough in two years, that he promised lots of stuff he hasn't delivered," said Omar Torres, 29, a San Jose State student who volunteered for Obama in Las Vegas and plans to do so again. "I try to tell them, 'Look, it's politics. You can't fix eight years of disaster in two years.' "
Political observers point to pockets of dissatisfaction, including immigrant rights groups frustrated about the lack of progress on reform and union members displeased with the extension of the President George W. Bush tax cuts.
"It's not as if labor is about to vote for the Republican, but you need labor if you're a Democrat," said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. "You need not only their votes, you need their enthusiasm. To the extent that wanes, even if its 5-10%, in a close election, it matters."
Recreating the grass-roots buzz could prove challenging.
"You can only be a movement candidate the first time around. He's an incumbent and he's got some message challenges," said Dan Newman, a Democratic operative. "A lot of his message gets boiled down to the uninspiring 'I prevented the economy from going off the cliff,' which is different than the inspirational 'hope and change' message" of 2008.
Obama's approach in California will be multi-pronged. In Palo Alto, he will hold a town hall Wednesday on deficit reduction at Facebook's headquarters that will be streamed live on the Internet. But much of his visit will focus on fundraising.
The president is expected to raise millions of dollars at six California events. A Thursday rally at Sony Picture Studios in Culver City is expected to attract thousands who paid between $100 and $2,500 to attend. Intimate dinners, including one at Tavern Restaurant in Brentwood, will cost up to $35,800 a person.
At recent fundraisers, Obama has sought to reinvigorate those who made up his 2008 effort.
"It wasn't my campaign; it was your campaign. It was your investment. It was your time. It was your energy. It was your faith and it was your confidence that is allowing me to try to live up to those values that we share," he said in Chicago last week. "And if you remember that, and if you take ownership for that, and if you are just as fired up now — despite the fact that your candidate is a little older and a lot grayer — then I have every confidence that we are going to be able finish the job."
A Democratic source with knowledge of the Obama campaign said there were promising signs. Within the first 24 hours of the campaign launch, 23,000 people had donated through its website, although there were no overt solicitations.
And California remained a vital source of support; the state sent more applications to a summer organizing program than any other state.