WASHINGTON — Is President Barack Obama running for re-election as an against-the-odds underdog or the confident front-runner?
Sometimes even Obama himself doesn't seem to know for sure.
As the president travels the country, he tells supporters he expects to win re-election because he believes his ideas and vision for the country are better than those of his Republican rivals.
But he is also quick to cast himself as the underdog, running for a second term amid a shaky economy for which he acknowledges he's at least partly responsible.
In trying to have it both ways, Obama is looking to assure supporters of a path to victory while infusing his incumbent bid for the White House with some of the enthusiasm of his long-shot campaign in 2008. But running as the underdog may not be as true a fit for Obama this time around given the inherent power of the presidency and, well, that he has already won once.
So which is it? Underdog or favorite?
To be sure, Obama's chances of winning a second term appear weakened by the country's economic woes and Washington's inability to do anything to lower an unemployment rate that has been stuck above 9 percent for months. The president's poll numbers have plummeted, falling to the mid- to low-40s in many recent polls.
But even accounting for those troubling numbers, the perks of being the incumbent make the underdog label a tricky fit for Obama. There's the pageantry of Air Force One arrivals in swing states, a monopoly on the Democratic fundraising network and a national profile unmatched by any Republican rival.
"If you're the underdog and you're the incumbent president, something has gone terribly wrong," Republican strategist John Feehery said.
Even some Democrats are skeptical of the notion that Obama is running from behind.
"It's hard to argue that the person residing in the White House is ever really the underdog," said Donna Brazile, an adviser to Bill Clinton's two presidential campaigns.
Obama says the role suits him.
"I don't mind it. I'm used to being the underdog," he said in a recent interview, embracing the label as soon as he was asked about it.
Politicians often own being the underdog as a way to build enthusiasm and urgency among their base. Obama did it himself in 2008. But back then, he clearly was.
As Obama reminds his supporters, he was a relatively unknown, first-term senator with a funny name when he beat the odds-on favorite, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the 2008 Democratic primary. He went on to defeat the more-seasoned Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, in the general election, carrying 53 percent of the popular vote and winning not only the traditional battlegrounds, but also states like North Carolina and Virginia that typically lean Republican.
Obama's success hinged in part on turning his status as an underdog and Washington outsider not only into a groundswell of support, but also an unprecedented grass-roots campaign and small-donor network.
Now, nearly three years into the president's term, it's not hard to see why his campaign might want to recapture some of that underdog energy. Obama may still have solid support among Democrats, but the enthusiasm is less palpable. And some liberal backers are downright angry over some of the president's policies and what they see as a tendency to give in to Republicans too easily. They may vote for the president in the end, but Obama says he needs more than that.
"We've got to have a sense of urgency about it," he told supporters in St. Louis last week. "This is going to be harder than it was last time, and it wasn't easy last time."
The president's surrogates, too, have begun casting Obama as the long shot in 2012.
White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said Obama has always been the underdog, and the role "just makes him work harder." Obama's top campaign adviser, David Axelrod, said the president's road to a second term in the White House is "a titanic struggle." And Vice President Joe Biden has said the Republican Party is strong enough to defeat Obama next November.
But the Obama camp almost always follows up their grim assessments of the 2012 race by voicing confidence that in the end, the president will prevail.
Obama himself told donors last month, "I intend to win this next election because we've got better ideas."
The risk of running as an underdog is that it inherently means you're expected to lose. And while that may motivate some voters, it could turn off others.
"There are a lot of folks who want to vote for a winner and it you're running as an underdog, that's going to raise questions in voters' minds," said Feehery, the Republican strategist.
Further complicating the incumbent underdog strategy: what to do when Obama finally has a Republican opponent, especially if the GOP challenger decides to be an underdog, too.
___Julie Pace can be reached at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC