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Obama no longer agent of change

By STEPHAN COLLINSON
April 4, 2011

President Barack Obama, once a fresh faced prophet of hope, now a graying incumbent and the face of America's painful status quo, is expected to launch his bid for a second term this week. (AFP/Jewel Samad)

President Barack Obama, once a fresh faced prophet of hope, now a graying incumbent and the face of America’s painful status quo, is expected to launch his bid for a second term this week.

Obama, his political brand battered by a flurry of crises near and far — including an economic meltdown and a third US war abroad in Libya, has endured two years of turmoil after winning an election for the ages in 2008.

He is expected to formally lodge paperwork with the Federal Election Commission early this week, which would allow him to set a political course for the November 2012 presidential election.

Trusted aides have decamped to Chicago to fire up his campaign machinery and the formal declaration of his candidacy will allow him to begin piling up cash for what may be a billion dollar election.

Despite the constant drumbeat of crisis surrounding his White House, Obama, 49, appears in surprisingly good shape 19 months from polling day, partly due Republican field which seems to lack an heir apparent.

But it is already clear that Obama, credited with running the most electric grass-roots campaign in memory in 2008, must find a new message to again woo supporters who once swooned to his “Yes We Can” oratory.

The 2008 campaign, from Obama’s primary duel with glass ceiling breaker Hillary Clinton to his inauguration as America’s first black president, was steeped in history — a flavor that will be missing in 2012.

Though many of America’s problems predated his presidency, Obama is now the face of his nation’s slow economic rebound and diminished clout abroad.

But there was a ray of hope for the president last week — a dip in the unemployment rate to 8.8 percent suggested the economy — which is almost always crucial in US elections — is speeding up.

But many Americans have yet to feel tangible economic relief.

Obama will also brandish a record as a genuine reformer, after passing a historic health care law and a bill curtailing Wall Street excess, allowing him to argue he delivered the change he promised.

He will say he has restored the US image abroad and charted a path through a testing world.

But the health care law remains divisive, and Obama has fallen short of other lofty goals, including his bid to close the prison for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

At a recent Democratic Party event in New York, Obama ticked off a list of accomplishments.

“We’ve gotten a lot of stuff done. But right now what?s on my mind is what hasn?t gotten done yet,” he said.

But Obama also seemed to recognize he must conjure up a spirit of optimism after two grim years as he again courts young and independent voters.

“The one thing that I want everybody here to understand is that I am as hopeful, if not more hopeful, now than I was when I was running.” Obama said.

Polls show Obama’s approval rating in the high 40 percent region, hardly a stellar endorsement from voters but still viable considering the tough times.

Compared with a generic Republican and in individual matchups, Obama runs strongly in many polls of possible opponents.

Yet while an accelerating economy could underwrite a solid race in 2012, any slowing of momentum could spell trouble for Obama.

And peril also lurks overseas.

Republicans are already slamming Obama’s reponse to crises in Libya and the wider Middle East, which they say show him as a weak leader with a fuzzy foreign policy — a critique playing into their narrative of American decline.

An uptick in American bloodshed in the decade-long war in Afghanistan could also shake up the political scene.

But the president is on course to declare in December that his core 2008 promise — to end the Iraq war — has been honored with all US troops due home.

Democrats take solace in the fact that there are also questions about Obama’s eventual opponent, in a Republican Party dragged right of the crucial political center ground by the ultra-conservative Tea Party movement.

The crop of likely candidates includes former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, and former Massachusetts governer Mitt Romney — a failed 2008 contender — and both appear to have liabilities.

So far, Sarah Palin, who electrified Republicans as John McCain’s vice presidential nominee in 2008 has not tipped her hand.

Yet the Alaska governor’s popularity seems sullied these days and a new female star is emerging : Representive Michele Bachmann, who may have the evangelical bona fides to shine in the first-in-the-nation nominating contest in Iowa early next year.

Others testing the water include former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Alabama Governor Haley Barbour and folksy Mike Huckabee, who won Iowa in 2008.

Copyright © 2011 AFP