WASHINGTON — After a dreary summer marred by the fight over government borrowing, rank-and-file Democrats say they are growing more optimistic about President Barack Obama's political prospects in 2012. They cite his tougher, more populist tone and what they view as a chaotic primary fight among Republicans.
Many Democrats acknowledged that high unemployment and economic uncertainty create formidable obstacles for the incumbent. But interviews with more than a dozen Democratic activists across the nation found support for Obama's more forceful message against GOP lawmakers and interest in rebutting the presidential candidates.
Several pointed to Obama's speech last week in Kansas, where he argued that the middle class had been under duress for the past decade and economic policies must give everyone a "fair shot and a fair share."
"He didn't have his voice and we didn't have our voice," said David Leland, an attorney in Columbus, Ohio, and former state party chairman. "But now he has successfully turned that particular corner and most people are much more enthusiastic and much more fired up about it."
Added Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat: "What he said in Kansas brought us back down to basics." Durbin told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that "this is a make-or-break moment for the middle class in America."
Entering 2012, Obama faces a set of economic numbers that have improved but that no incumbent would relish: unemployment of 8.6 percent in November, down from 9 percent in October; consumer confidence of 56, well below the level where a president typically gets re-elected; and an economy that has created 100,000 or more jobs five months in a row – the first time that has happened since April 2006.
Politically, Obama's approval rating, as measured by Gallup, has been in the low 40s during the fall and hasn't topped 50 percent since last May. Polls typically show about three-quarters of voters view the nation on the wrong track. Republicans have blamed Obama for high unemployment and rising debt, contending that his policies have failed to lift America from recession.
"No amount of rhetoric or new slogans is going to change this president's record," said Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer. "On issue after issue – from job creation to a $15 trillion debt, voters are ready to change direction because of the president's failed promises and policies."
Nonetheless, a month before the first vote in the GOP nominating race, many Democrats said they were encouraged by the topsy-turvy contest. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have been battling for the lead while businessman Herman Cain, who's now dropped out, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry stumbled after rising in polls.
"Obama has not been everything I've wanted him to be but he's sure a heck of a lot better than any of the Republicans who have raised their hands," said Tom Bordeaux, a Democrat and former Georgia legislator who was recently elected to an alderman seat in Savannah, Ga.
Mary Gail Gwaltney, a member of the Democratic National Committee from Las Cruces, N.M., said she felt stronger about Obama now "because I'm looking at the other party's field and they don't have a strong candidate."
Democrats, who have targeted Romney through the airwaves, indicated that they would give Gingrich similar treatment, labeling the former Georgia congressman the "original tea partier" in a Web video released Sunday by the Democratic National Committee that highlighted his stances on Medicare, Social Security and taxes.
As Obama confronts the GOP field, many Democratic stalwarts said the president's tone and message will be pivotal.
Many activists said they were unhappy with Obama's attempt to reach concessions with Republicans last summer during summer negotiations over the government's borrowing limit. But they said they were reassured when he proposed a jobs bill in September and hit the road trying to sell the package.
Only one provision has been enacted, tax incentives to encourage companies to hire unemployed veterans. Still, many party organizers said Obama's fight with congressional Republicans over payroll tax cuts, unemployment benefits and efforts to force the wealthy to pay more in taxes would help their cause.
"He has to be seen as a champion for the average person," said George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO. "I think that's where his heart is – that's what he believes – but he's been too tentative in showing it. I guess in the labor movement, we come from the perspective that we've got to know where you are."
Rob Tully, a former Iowa Democratic party chairman who supported John Edwards in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, said that last summer many of his party allies shared his sense of frustration that Obama "was not engaging in the fight" with Republicans. But he said Obama's more populist tone and attention to bread-and-butter issues for middle-class voters has resonated with him.
"I was frustrated with him but I have come full circle, back to the fold," Tully said.
Beyond the message, many activists said Obama's organizational efforts should help their cause. The campaign has been recruiting tens of thousands of volunteers to help with the re-election campaign. Democrats contend Obama will have a yearlong head start over the Republican nominee and his organization should outpace that of his eventual rival.
"He understands clearly that there's a race and some of the things that worked for him in the election aren't going to work this time," said Judy Kennedy, a DNC member from Phoenix, referring to the 2008 race.
Kennedy said she was deeply concerned about Obama's chances over the summer but came away reassured after meeting with campaign officials in Chicago last September. "My feelings about it have improved dramatically over the last few months."
Debbie Dingell, a DNC member and the wife of Michigan Rep. John Dingell, said many Democrats long have recognized the headwinds facing them next year and are working to organize voters in the most effective way.
"It's going to be a tough year and because of that, they're not kidding themselves that this isn't going to be challenging and they're prepared for a tough fight," she said.