WASHINGTON — As he weighed a presidential run back in 2006, President Barack Obama displayed a realistic sense of self-awareness: All the adulation he was receiving, he conceded then, was because he was a blank slate on which people could attach their aspirations.
As he seeks re-election, his self-awareness is on display again, with a new conclusion.
“It’s not as cool to be an Obama supporter as it was in 2008, with the posters and all of that stuff,” he acknowledged to an intimate gathering of donors in Miami this week.
It’s a line he delivered with a chuckle, a variation on a theme that he is using with his base of supporters. But it holds an important truth for the Obama campaign: Obama is now a known quantity and he will not inspire voters this election the same way he did in the previous one.
Complicating things for Obama is what the Pew Research Center calls an “intensity gap” between Obama’s conservative opponents and the liberals who would be most likely to support him. A recent Pew survey found that 84 percent of staunch conservatives strongly disapprove of the president, but only 64 percent of solid liberals strongly approve of him.
Intensity, or enthusiasm, is an important factor in driving voters to the polls. Obama benefited greatly from it in 2008 with a record-shattering turnout. But conservative intensity played a significant role in the 2010 midterm elections that put Republicans in control of the House.
For the president, crafting his message for 2012 is a balancing act.
He must re-energize his base, the voters moved by his 2008 mantra of hope and change. But he also must reassure moderate and independent voters that he is still focused on righting the economy and that he is not the radical, ineffective agent portrayed by the Republican field of presidential candidates.
Obama bridges the two with a line meant to be both a defense of his first two years in office and a rationale for his re-election: “Big changes don’t happen overnight.”
Still, Obama this week was reminded of the results many of his supporters have come to expect from him, no matter how unrealistic. While speaking to more than 900 supporters Monday at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, one man in the audience stood and shouted, “Keep your promise, stop AIDS now!” before the crowd drowned him out with cheers of “Obama, Obama!”
Obama also faces the full force of the Republican presidential field. The GOP debate in New Hampshire on Monday night displayed how a central feature of the Republican candidates’ pitches was that they were the antithesis of Obama, variously denouncing his health care plan as “Obamacare,” his time in the presidency as the “Obama depression” and his policies as anti-job and anti-business.
While Republicans know whom they are running against, Obama does not.
Obama political adviser David Axelrod maintains that Obama voters will regain their intensity once they have a flesh and blood candidate to compare with Obama.
But that is still months away and Obama needs enthusiasm from his supporters now to build a grass-roots base and to raise money.
In his speeches to donors these days, Obama recalls the euphoria displayed by his backers during his election night acceptance speech in Chicago’s Grant Park.
“Now, two and a half years have passed since that night in Grant Park, and I’ve got a lot more gray hair,” he said at the Arsht Center, where supporters paid from $44 to $2,500 to hear him. “And what seemed so fresh and new, now – `we’ve seen Obama so many times on TV, and we know all his quirks and all his tics and he’s been poked apart.’”
He knows what his liberal critics say, and he asks for their forbearance. To be sure, they have a litany of complaints. Many Democrats wanted him to push for a public option in health care, a government alternative to private insurance providers. Others wanted an immigration overhaul or a quicker end to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I know the conversation you guys are having,” he said to laughter. “I understand that. There have been frustrations, and I’ve got some dings to show for it over the last two and half years.”