WASHINGTON – No longer the fresh voice of change, President Barack Obama embarked on a bid for re-election Monday by asking a divided, anxious electorate to let him finish the job he won in 2008. He’s getting an early start against a Republican field that’s still undefined, but he’s saddled with an ailing economy that still isn’t working for millions of voters.
Obama began with an effort to recapture his outsider’s touch of 2008, bypassing a public statement from the White House in favor of an email sent to millions of supporters.
He offered a kickoff video in which official Washington is ignored and even Obama himself only makes a fleeting appearance. What the campaign wanted voters to see instead were people like them speaking of real-life concerns and their faith in Obama, against wholesome backdrops in every clip: a church, a farm, a family in a kitchen, an American flag.
Yet this time around, Obama carries both the benefits and baggage of being the establishment candidate.
The president now owns an economy that is adding jobs but still leaving millions of people without help or work. As the incumbent, he can blow into town on Air Force One, draw unparalleled free media coverage and command all the other perks of the presidency. But he must also remobilize his coalition and reenergize it, too, including getting back the independent voters who swung Republican in last year’s midterm elections.
Obama ran once on hope. This time he will run on his record as well. That means voters will evaluate him on what he has gotten done, including laws to reshape health insurance and Wall Street behavior, and the promises he has not delivered upon, including immigration reform and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
A huge part of his challenge will be to spark the voter inspiration that often got lost in the slog of governing. His new campaign video gave a nod to the challenge. A woman named Alice from Michigan said: “We’re paying him to do a job. So we can’t say, ‘Hey, could you just take some time off and come and get us all energized?’ So we better figure it out.”
Obama filed his candidacy paperwork Monday, about 20 months from Election Day, so he can begin raising money in earnest for a potential campaign fund of $1 billion or more. More than a dozen Republicans are seriously considering trying to unseat him, but none has declared yet.
What comes next is a loud, undefined, unpredictable White House contest. The early party primary voting is not set to begin until next year.
His campaign this time will not have the foil of George W. Bush, an unpopular incumbent who helped define the mood of 2008 without being on the ballot. The White House is eager to portray the election as a choice, but the look and feel of that contrast will not become evident until a competitor emerges from a wide-open Republican field.