But despite a crisis-wracked 33 months in office hounded by Republicans, Obama, who fought long odds to reach the White House, appears to have a real, if thin, path to victory in what is looming as a cliffhanger election.
A Republican field perceived as lacking a rock star candidate and a volatile electorate fuming at all politicians render the November 6, 2012, election as difficult to decipher.
If Obama is to win, he will have to trump economic realities that normally doom an incumbent president, with high unemployment, a moribund housing market, and national gloom suffocating America’s trademark optimism.
Since World War II, no president has won reelection with a Gallup poll approval rating of less than 48 percent. Despite a slight uptick in recent days, Obama’s Gallup daily tracking mark stands at 43 percent.
Americans are currently in a sour mood — leaving all office holders on edge — and a staggering 74 percent in a New York Times/CBS poll last month said their country was headed in the wrong direction.
So, Obama is vulnerable to unforeseen disasters over the next 12 months, and must hope his Republican foe does not catch fire.
Yet in battleground polls, Obama runs close with Republicans, including front runner Mitt Romney, suggesting a still open race.
Whoever is the Republican nominee will seek to make the election a referendum on Obama’s failure to make deep cuts in 9.1 percent unemployment.
The White House meanwhile is trying to frame it as a verdict not on Obama but on Republicans it says are in hock to Wall Street and failed tax cut and economic policies.
“Who do you trust in your gut to walk in that Oval Office to look out for people like you?” a senior Obama aide said.
“We believe a shade over 50 percent of them will answer the president.”
Though history shows recession-mired presidents tend to lose, could Obama buck the trend?
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin thinks he could: “I think this is an ahistorical moment,” he said arguing that many Americans do not blame him for the “Great Recession.”
Yet Whit Ayers, a Republican consultant, speaking like Garin at a National Journal forum, disagreed.
“The idea that this is not going to be a referendum on the incumbent president is whistling past the graveyard, it is wishful thinking on the part of the Obama White House,” he said.
Obama’s 2012 campaign is already a far cry from the change crusade that produced America’s first black president.
“It’s not going to be as sexy. It’s not going to be as new,” Obama said in California last month.
“People are just tired. They’re worn out. People are weary and hurt and so the energy of 2008 is going to have to be generated in a different way.”
The White House knows Obama cannot escape the jobs crisis.
“It is a certainty we are going to be running for election in a tough economy. That’s just a fact,” one official said.
The Congressional Budget Office predicts 8.5 percent unemployment in 2012, meaning many people will still be feeling the lash of recession.
So, Obama’s campaign has little choice but to go negative, and has already started portraying Romney as a multi-millionaire flip-flopper unworthy of the Oval Office.
“He has no core. You look at issue after issue after issue, he’s moved all over the place,” Obama’s top political aide David Plouffe said Sunday on NBC.
“I can tell you one thing working a few steps down from the president, what you need in that office is conviction. You need to have a true compass.”
Obama’s team says the president is more in tune with the middle classes than any of his possible opponents: the Republican “definition of the middle class is somebody who has a Mercedes instead of a Bentley,” one official said.
It also highlights his record in dispatching terrorists, including Osama bin Laden as proof of leadership mettle, though foreign policy is down the list of voter concerns.
Obama will also decry his Republican foe as a hostage to the Tea Party even as he empathizes with the conservative movement’s grass roots rivals in the Occupy Wall Street protests.
But Republicans believe they have a winning case and charge Obama’s populist calls for higher taxes on the rich smack of class warfare.
Obama is also vulnerable because his core political promise was to drain the bile from Washington. But US politics is more poisonous than ever.
“Nearly three years into his presidency… the president has opted for divisive rhetoric and the broken politics of the past,” said Republican lawmaker Paul Ryan, contrasting the Obama of 2011 with 2008’s prophet of hope.
The Republican race looks like Romney’s to lose after he led or tied four CNN polls of early voting states.
And, his Republican foes, including former pizza executive Herman Cain, conservative Texas governor Rick Perry and Minnesota lawmaker Michele Bachmann are playing catch-up two months from the start of nominating contests.