Barack Obama
Elise Amendola  /  AP
President Barack Obama speaks about education at TechBoston Academy in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood on March 8.
By
updated 3/15/2011 9:20:37 AM ET 2011-03-15T13:20:37

Barack Obama rode a wave of voter passion in 2008 fed largely by intense dislike of President George W. Bush and the Iraq war, plus excitement among young and minority voters at the notion of electing the nation's first black president.

Now, as Obama cranks up his re-election campaign, all those factors are absent.

The president has many tools, of course, for inspiring and exciting potential voters. But he faces a different landscape, one in which key supporters are disappointed by concessions he has made to Republicans, and discouraged by huge Democratic losses last fall.

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Obama acknowledged the challenge last week in Boston. "Somebody asked me, how do we reinvigorate the population, the voter, after two very tough years?" he told Democratic donors. "How do we recapture that magic that got so many young people involved for the very first time in 2008?"

One answer, the president said, is to persuade hardcore liberals to swallow their anger over political compromises the administration reached with Republicans, even when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress.

Obama's concessions include dropping his proposed public option for health insurance, and extending Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest.

Story: Ryan: GOP ready to take on health programs

"There's no weakness in us trying to reach out and seeing if we can find common ground," the president said.

Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field

Despite his pleas, many Obama supporters clearly are disappointed. When he was inaugurated, 83 percent of Democrats said they expected his presidency to be above average, and nearly half predicted it would be "outstanding," an AP-GfK poll found. Two years later, 68 percent of Democrats rated it above average so far, and just 20 percent called it outstanding.

Last fall's elections were a disaster not only for the hundreds of Democrats voted out of Congress, governorships and state legislatures. They raised questions about Obama, too.

Thirty-seven percent of voters told exit pollsters they cast ballots explicitly to oppose the president, while 23 percent said their votes represented support for him.

Top Obama aides optimistic
Top Obama aides say things will look better by mid-2012, for several reasons.

They say GOP-led efforts to end state workers' collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and elsewhere are dramatically galvanizing the labor movement, a key Democratic constituency. Some union activists wish Obama would speak up more forcefully for them. But campaign aides say they think he is walking the right line by supporting unions without appearing unduly beholden to them.

Story: Tens of thousands at pro-labor rally in Wisconsin

Another key group, gays and lesbians, may shrug off several disappointments and work hard for Obama's re-election because he signed legislation beginning the repeal of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which barred gays from serving openly in the military.

Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in an interview that the president will be able to show solid progress on the economy, education and other topics that will persuade dispirited Democrats to fight for Obama's re-election.

These issues will "continue to animate core supporters of the president," Gibbs said, and "get them passionately involved."

He predicted that Republicans will help by focusing on undoing Obama initiatives, such as the 2010 health care overhaul, rather than offering an appealing alternative agenda. "Being against something is only going to get you so far," Gibbs said.

Several Democratic activists acknowledged that some black voters are disappointed in Obama, wishing he would do more for impoverished Americans. But these voters might be far more outraged and energized, the activists say, by people who say the nation's first black president was born in Kenya and has no legal right to be in the White House.

Some Democrats say they may need luck to replicate the passionate turnout of Obama's first campaign. The often-stated claim that voters would embrace the health care law once it began taking effect has proven mostly untrue. But another year may change that, these Democrats say.

Few new ideas, at present
For now, the Obama team is unveiling few new ideas specifically keyed to firing up core constituencies.

A recent White House conference call urged young voters to hold roundtables, which administration officials may attend, to discuss priorities and offer feedback.

Beyond that, Obama eventually plans large rallies similar to those in 2008. They create showy spectacles that excite young voters, but they also serve a fundraising role. People who enter the stadiums or buy Obama T-shirts are asked to provide their names and contact information, which are used later to request donations and volunteer activities.

Republicans predict Obama will easily exceed the record $750 million he raised for the 2008 race, even without a competitive Democratic primary.

When it comes to energizing the Democratic base and turning out the vote, however, Obama will sorely miss one person: George W. Bush. His unpopularity helped cripple GOP nominee John McCain's efforts to overtake Obama in 2008.

A few days before the election, Bush's disapproval rating hit a record 70 percent in the Pew Research Center survey. A declining number of likely voters, meanwhile, felt McCain would take the country in a different direction.

Whatever problems the eventual 2012 Republican nominee may have, Bush will be a distant memory. Obama will have to find a new punching bag, and new incentives, to fire up his base.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

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