WASHINGTON -- As the air war begins in earnest between the president and Mitt Romney, the Obama campaign in Chicago called itself, in the words of campaign official David Axelrod, "confident, but realistic."
"It is a tough environment," Axelrod told The Huffington Post. "There are events that are beyond our control. And we have the super PACs bearing down on us. But we have confidence in our candidate. We have confidence in our message. And we have confidence in our organization."
A second reelection staffer declined to be named, perhaps because he put a more attack-oriented spin on the strategy. "This thing will be close," he said. "But I would say that we are confident that the more this is a choice, the better off we are. And the more people focus on Romney, the less they will like that choice."
So: combative, realistic, girding for a $2 billion drone war, but confident. Some would say cocky.
But should they be?
There are reasons for saying yes. The president is a superb campaigner. He will have as much, if not more, money than the Republicans, a rare advantage for a Democrat. The economy is headed -- slowly, to be sure -- in the right direction. As Vice President Joe Biden has said, this is the administration that killed Osama bin Laden and saved General Motors. There is no love lost between the American people and the GOP, especially on social issues and especially among women, who favor the president by double-digit margins.
But there are a number of reasons why the Obama team might -- and should be -- more worried than they claim and why they should not take anything for granted between now and November. Here are some:
Romney Should Be Further Behind. The man likely to wrap up the GOP presidential nomination one of these days (although probably not officially until late May or June) has to be regarded as one of the weakest party standard bearers since Michael Dukakis strapped on a tank helmet. Romney is the almost absurdly exact embodiment of an out-of-touch Republican rich guy. Evangelical Christians, for a generation the shock troops of the Reagan-Bush party, distrust him. He has had trouble putting away a weak field of adversaries. He is oblivious to the music, stagecraft and human drama of politics. He has been on so many sides of so many issues that it is hard even for diligent reporters to keep it straight. He has been under attack for months by his GOP competitors, who have called him every name in the book. There is an unknown, but not insignificant, number of voters who are unlikely to ever vote for a Mormon for president. And yet Romney is only about 5 percentage points or less behind in poll match-ups against Obama, and more important, both men are under 50 percent -- meaning the presidential race is up for grabs.
Basic Numbers Remain Bleak to Meh. At this point in their presidencies, Bill Clinton (54 percent) and George W. Bush (52 percent) had Gallup job approval numbers higher than Obama (46 percent) has. Recent presidents who were under 50 percent at this point (Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, each of whom had 39 percent job approval) lost their reelection bids. Everyone knows the unemployment numbers remain bleak. But so do the housing numbers (11 million homeowners underwater) and the country's "right direction/wrong track" number. In the Real Clear Politics polling average, the latter assessment is at 60 percent wrong, 33.7 percent right. That's a significant improvement over where the American spirit stood when the president took office (69.3 wrong/23.1 right), but it's still nearly a 2-1 negative view of the future.
The Hunger Games Campaign. The 2008 general election was, relatively speaking, rather mild in tone. Sen. John McCain, the GOP nominee who had been the victim of a viciously racist campaign in 2000, made it clear in 2008 that he wouldn't stand for one if he had anything to do with it. And the anti-Obama industry hadn't had four years to gear up. Now it has, and now the brief glimpse of harmony in those times is long gone.
The president himself is no wallflower. He ran more negative ads against his 2008 rival, Hillary Clinton, than she did against him, and his campaign attacked McCain furiously. But this time he's up against a foe in Romney who has no compunction about slinging fact-free mud. And the fully empowered, "independent," Supreme Court-enabled super PACs will produce a war of attack ads unlike anything the country has ever seen. The president seems a bit uncomfortable stepping into the accusatory environment in person. Mitt couldn't care less.
Still the Pied Piper? The president won in 2008 in part because of the enthusiasm of millennials and their older siblings. But it's going to be hard to reignite that wave. Why? The dismal job market, the inescapable (boring) fact of Obama's incumbency, and the arrival in the electorate of the millennials' younger brothers and sisters. The 18-to-29-year-old slice of the electorate is more supportive of the president (54 percent, according to Gallup) than any other, but will they turn out? Not clear.
Taxes. The president, for now, seems determined to make his plan to raises taxes on the rich the centerpiece of his campaign. It's true that 72 percent of those surveyed in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll support the idea of raising taxes on those who make more than $1 million a year. It's also true that Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan, which Romney supports, would give the biggest tax breaks to those same millionaires and relatively paltry percentage cuts to the middle class. And Obama had some success with this populist theme in 2008.
But making a tax hike -- any tax hike -- the central message of your campaign is still a risky strategy, especially for Democrats. It feels good. It's populist and angry. Getting it right, however, and scraping away two generations of Republican attacks on "big-spending liberals" is tough. The GOP slices up the electorate at will, with great precision and cynicism. Democrats haven't really been good at it since Harry Truman and remain vulnerable to the "class warfare" trope. Even Karl Rove's operatives concede that the Democrats are making some headway by attacking the GOP as a plutocracy that conspires against average Americans. The election will hinge on whether the president can complete this sale by placing it in a larger context than tax rates alone.
Race Will Be Part of the Race. Obama won in 2008 partly because he raised the hope that he could, by his very presence in the White House, heal the racial history of the nation, as magically as balm descending in a silver parachute. It was unrealistic, and most of us probably admitted as much to ourselves. Now that time is gone, and a grimmer, older reality has resurfaced. Will the bleaker atmosphere help or hurt the president? It may help if, as is likely, the GOP's allies overplay their hand, and the worst angels of our nature appear in the campaign. It wouldn't be much fun to win reelection that way. But this is not going to be a fun campaign.