Even Obama's staff acknowledges the obstacles. "It's going to be a very close, competitive election … a street fight for the presidency," White House aide David Plouffe, the strategist who managed Obama's 2008 victory, told reporters cheerfully on Wednesday.
First, Plouffe suggested, Obama has an opportunity to improve his standing among independent voters — many of whom deserted the Democrats in the 2010 midterm election — by working with Republicans toward bipartisan deficit-reduction measures.
Second, Obama has managed to move toward the center without losing significant support among core Democratic voters. The president's job approval rating among Democrats, Plouffe said, is in the 80% to 90% range in many states. (Nationally, it's about 77%, still respectable.)
Third, demographics help the Democrats. One of the keys to Obama's victory in 2008, Plouffe noted, was high turnout among young, black and Latino voters, all groups that heavily supported the Democrat. Next year's electorate should include even more minority voters than last time.
Fourth, Obama is a seasoned campaigner who ran a long, tough election campaign in 2008, and he still has the team that helped him to victory in place.
Does that reasoning stand up to scrutiny? Let's take the assertions one at a time.
Obama certainly has veered back toward the center after two years of enacting liberal-friendly measures like his $787-billion economic stimulus package and his healthcare law. In the current negotiations over raising the $14-trillion debt limit, he has taken pains to move at least halfway toward Republicans' demands.
But it's by no means certain that this will be enough to win back the independent voters who have abandoned his party in droves. In the 2008 presidential election, Obama won 52% of independents, according to a national exit poll, but by last month, his support among independents stood at only 42% in a Pew Research Center poll.
At a breakfast organized by Bloomberg News, Plouffe said he thought Obama could recapture many of those independents, because they still want to "get away from the stale ideas of the left or right and focus on what's going to be right for the country." But he hasn't pulled it off yet.
As to Plouffe's second contention — that Obama hasn't alienated liberals despite his move to the center — the Democrats can only hope he's right. Obama aides appear to believe the president has plenty of leeway to make a deal with Republicans on debt reduction because, to put it bluntly, liberal Democrats don't have anywhere else to go.
Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic strategist who has been critical of White House political strategy, says that so far at least, Plouffe's optimism on this count is justified. The "enthusiasm gap" that drove more Republicans than Democrats to the polls in last year's congressional election, Greenberg said, is no more. At this point, he asserted, "Democrats are more enthusiastic than Republicans."
Still, Democrats are depending on Republicans to help — by waging a polarized campaign that sends liberal voters back to Obama.
Plouffe's third reason for optimism — that Obama's strong base of support among young, black and Latino voters will stand him in good stead — has something to it. Plouffe said, somewhat improbably, that he believed the 2012 campaign could actually turn out more of those voters this time. "We believe that we can improve over what we did in 2008 in turnout in some of those base Obama groups."
That will be difficult. But the underlying trend — the growing share of the electorate that's composed of minority voters — certainly favors the Democrats.
Latinos, particularly, make up a bigger share of the electorate in every cycle. But Obama will have to show them that they have a reason to support him. Immigration reform had slipped far down on his priority list even before the Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives; now, with the GOP in control, meaningful reform stands little chance of getting through Congress. But expect to hear more about it from the White House as we head into 2012.
Plouffe's final point — that Obama's campaign aides know how to win — was clearly true in 2008, but the environment they face in 2012 is far tougher. Team Obama is well organized, it's raising a war chest that may reach a billion dollars, and it hopes to rebuild the vast volunteer network that helped the president win 28 states. But, as Obama himself noted last week, "sometimes generating the same energy is difficult."
Plouffe was indisputably right about one thing: Winning reelection won't be easy. Obama has to thread a needle between his new centrist position and his old liberal base; on that front, this month's battle over the debt ceiling offers both opportunity and peril. The 2012 presidential election could be won or lost in the next three weeks.