President Obama greets supporters at a campaign rally in Dubuque, Iowa,… (Scott Olson, Getty Images )
AKRON, Ohio — Margaret McConnell chokes up a little when she thinks about the last few years in politics.
When she helped to elect Barack Obama in 2008, she says, "it felt like we were on the cusp of change."
Four years later, her heart is heavy and her expectations are more pragmatic.
"For me," the 68-year-old retiree says, "it's now about making little drops in the bucket."
The volunteer class of 2008 has seen a lot since that night in Chicago's Grant Park when the nation greeted its new president-elect — a man who supporters hoped would bring about an era of change that politics had never seen before.
Then their president went to Washington, and things changed. His agenda bent to accommodate how the real world works. Politics got ugly.
McConnell's attitude reflects an unmistakable change in atmosphere at the Obama rallies this summer. The crowds are smaller and less frenzied, and the returning volunteers display a new sense of realism and resolve.
"You know, hope and change was fine," says Akron public school teacher Maggie Oliver, "but now we have to roll up our sleeves and get the job done."
The "enthusiasm" problem, as strategists refer to it, is a serious issue for President Obama, whose campaign is relying heavily on the hope that a field operation in preparation for months can add a crucial couple of points to his vote total in key states.
Pollsters have detected a steady slide in voters' sense of optimism about the president.
"There's this sense of disillusionment. We don't see as many people saying he makes them feel proud," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.
The Obama campaign is clearly focused on firing up core supporters. Officials won't openly acknowledge the enthusiasm problem, but are quick to say they aren't making any assumptions about how their 2008 supporters are feeling in 2012.
"We're not taking that for granted," said one Obama advisor, who requested anonymity to describe internal discussions.
Creating a sense of enthusiasm among volunteers was one of the main points of the president's bus tour of Iowa this past week, the aide said. Obama spent three days zigzagging through the state, connecting with county chairs, elected officials and worker bees. A similar bus trip recently took him through parts of Ohio.
In Iowa, Obama supporters may have been further disheartened by an incessant stream of anti-Obama ads during the run-up to the Republican caucuses in January.
"The president has a lot of work to do," said David Yepsen, a longtime Iowa political reporter who now heads the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "And he can't do it from Air Force One."
Young people are a particular concern. "The lack of enthusiasm could result in lower turnout," says Kohut, presenting a problem "particularly if it's among the people who voted for him at high rates."
But while some have clearly turned away from politics altogether, others have come back despite the disappointments of the last four years.
Ashley Cadaret, a 27-year-old freelance Web designer, brought her 2-year-old son to an Obama rally in Akron. She said she wanted to be able to tell him that he had seen a sitting president — even if he won't remember it.
Obama was the first political figure that ever had caught her attention. Cadaret says she was drawn to Obama's eloquence and positions, and both she and her husband became passionate supporters. Not all of that feeling is gone today, she said.
"I'm still proud of the fact that we have elected our first African American, biracial president. I still get butterflies and warm, fuzzy feelings about that. To be able to tell my son, look at this. Look what we did," she said.
But there were times when Obama disappointed her. She thought it was a "kind of strange" that he waited so long to come out in favor of gay marriage. She wishes he would cut the Pentagon budget and make faster progress toward ending the war in Afghanistan.
The last few years have been about "realizing the fact that you don't make political decisions in a vacuum," she said. "You can say all the right things and have all the right intentions, but you need support in those.
"I'm realistic this time," she said.
"Realistic" is a word that crops up at Obama rallies a lot these days, along with well-worn 4-year-old T-shirts. So is the word "fight."
Though some commentators wonder whether Obama's barrage of negative anti-Romney ads will turn off his supporters, many Obama voters say they don't want to see their president hesitant to mix it up. They remember the "Swift boat" campaign of 2004, when Democratic nominee John F. Kerry was slow to respond to attacks on his military record.
"Be tough," said Darcel Madkins, chief executive of an African arts company, who attended a recent Obama rally near her home in Pittsburgh.
If anything, some would like to see Obama hit Mitt Romney harder.
Bruce Stamper, a carpenter who went to see Obama at a rally in Winter Park, Fla., this month, doesn't think any of the ads he's seen this summer on Romney's record are overly tough.
"What surprises me is that Democrats aren't pushing it more," he said.