WASHINGTON -- Even before the Obama administration announced that the next Democratic National Convention would be held in Charlotte, N.C., the president's top aides were plotting a 2012 electoral landscape that would mirror the one Obama traversed in 2008 in terms of its ambition.
In an interview on Monday, senior adviser David Axelrod underscored just how expansive the president's expectations are heading into the election season, highlighting North Carolina, specifically, as a battleground.
"[T]he mistake we make in this town is often to sit on the back of the truck and look at what just happened and extrapolate from it and assume that the next election is going to be just like the last one," said Axelrod, just hours away from leaving the White House after two years of service. "2012 is not going to be 2010. The president is going to be on the ballot. The electorate is going to be a much larger electorate. And if you look at the polling from around the country -- there was just one public poll from North Carolina last week -- it's very clear that in virtually all the states where we were competitive last time, we're competitive again. Now, we can be more or less competitive, but we're certainly going to compete on a large field."
Less than 12 hours later, the Democratic National Committee sent out an email, under first lady Michelle Obama's name, announcing Charlotte as the convention site.
Bluntly strategic, the choice still demonstrates an early optimism on the part of the president's political staff about the 2012 map. Obama won North Carolina by a scant 14,000 votes in 2008. Without a major investment, the state seemed all but assured to return to Republican hands. Even with the investment, not everyone is certain that the president can win there again.
"Despite being warned by some very smart demographers within the Obama camp, I was plumb wrong about Obama's chances of carrying North Carolina in 2008. He did win, but narrowly, and I'm willing to go double or nothing that, barring a disastrous GOP nominee or campaign, Obama will not repeat in the Tar Heel state in 2012," said Tom Schaller, a political science professor and author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South. "The Charlotte choice can't hurt, but it won't help that much."
There were, certainly, more standard choices. Cleveland, for one, resides in perpetually bellwether Ohio -- a state that, Schaller posits, will be far more critical of Obama's success than North Carolina. But forgoing the mistake-by-the-lake in favor of Charlotte may have been less about broad strategic visions than practical planning.
"One of the big things is infrastructure," former DNC Chairman Howard Dean explained about convention planning. "My understanding is they would have loved to have gone for Cleveland but it probably wasn't quite big enough in terms of the hotel rooms and that St. Louis [another option] and Charlotte were very even ... I don't know what the deciding factor was. But Charlotte is very well equipped for this so I think it will be a good convention and it is a swing state and I think that's good for us."
And so, the bar has been formally set for Obama to compete in North Carolina. What it would take to do so successfully is a whole different matter. From a makeshift office in the West Wing, Axelrod laid out the type of messaging the president would deploy as the election neared. Chief among the contrasts would be economic policy. While the two parties agree, in broad terms, over the need to deal with the debt, the notion that an ax could be swung across all budget lines was something the president fundamentally opposed.
"We have no debate about the need to cut. Where the debate will come is, where and how," said Axelrod. "To say, we're just going to take a meat cleaver and cut indiscriminately across the board at the same level, is not a responsible policy. If we, in fact, decided to execute a 20 percent or more cut in education, that's like running up the flag of surrender in the economic competition of the 21st century."
It is from that premise that much of the 2012 debate will spread. The White House, for instance, has allowed that there is a need to reform Social Security. But privatization and cutting benefits for future recipients are firmly "outside the parameters", a senior administration official stressed.
Perhaps the best building block for the president's reelection prospects, however, are the accomplishments secured in the past few months. While Democrats suffered a miserable showing in the 2010 elections, the lame duck session that followed put Obama on a historically comfortably perch heading into 2012. The political team admits this even if, bowing to superstition, they downplay its importance.
"In politics, if you let yourself feel comfortable that's when you get beaten," said Axelrod, who will take some time off before formally going to work on the reelection campaign. "The day after the election, everyone was sort of wringing their hands and they were depressed, but this is not [the president's] habit. Very focused, he said: "Okay, that happened, now we've got this lame duck session coming up. Here's what I want to accomplish. How do we do it?"
"As a result, we've had a very, very good sixty days since then. When you look at the historical comparisons, the bounce back from what was famously called a shellacking was very dramatic, and that's gratifying. But the world is a dynamic place ... But I like where we are."