WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama reminisces about taking a wrong turn and getting lost. Fumbling to fold a map. Dashing to Kinko's to copy campaign fliers.
The president's re-election campaign increasingly is sounding like a nostalgia tour. His speeches stroll through elections past, serving up fond memories of his days running as a political unknown, identifying early political inspirations and reminding voters that, win or lose, this will be his last campaign after 13 appearances on the ballot since 1996.
"I'm term-limited," he tells crowds – a flat statement of the obvious that always gets a laugh. "You get a little nostalgic and you start thinking about your first political campaigns."
These are not the casual ad-libs of a candidate suddenly turning wistful, but a rhetorical device designed to transport Obama back to the days when he was the kind of ordinary guy voters felt they could relate to, long before he rode in limousines and flew on Air Force One.
"Sometimes I couldn't find a parking spot and so I'd end up being late, and if it was raining I'd have to fumble with my umbrella and I'd come in kind of drenched," Obama told a crowd in Oakland, Calif., earlier this week.
"There were these things called maps, because we did not have GPS," he told a chuckling crowd in Portland, Ore., the next day. "And they were on paper, and you'd have to fold them. You'd unfold them and then trying to fold them back was really difficult."
The unwritten subtext: I'm just like you, and my policies flow from our shared experiences. Mitt Romney, he's a rich guy whose policies would benefit the elite.
"It's the silver-spoon-in-his-mouth attack – more gently insinuated," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political rhetoric and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
It's also a rejoinder to Romney's own characterizations of Obama as isolated in the presidential bubble and out of touch with the economic concerns of ordinary Americans.
Obama uses his reminiscing riffs to trace a direct connection between his biography and those of the voters he met in early campaigns. The older couples, he says, reminded him of his grandfather who served in World War II and his grandmother who worked a bomber assembly line. The single moms, he says, reminded him of his own mother, who worked to put herself and her two kids through college. The working couples, he says, reminded him of his wife's parents.
"I would be traveling and I'd meet people, and I'd say, you know what, their story is my story," Obama told a crowd in Texas this month.
Robin Lakoff, a professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley, said Obama's goal in getting "all personal, fuzzy-wuzzy and nostalgic" is to recreate an intimacy with voters. Lakoff, who reviewed Obama's speeches and commented by email, said both the president's Kenyan ancestry and his cool personality make it especially important for him to cement a personal connection to voters.
"That is not to say his self-revelations are false – I think they are genuine – but they are designed to do this particular essential job," she said.
Framing the 2012 election as Obama's last race also gives the campaign a way to conjure memories of Obama's rise from political unknown to first African-American president, offering voters one last chance to be part of something historic.
"You guys not only inspired me, but you inspired each other," Obama told a crowd in Iowa recently. "And you can still do that."
Michelle Obama, too, is harking back to her husband's early campaigns as she tries to get supporters energized for this one.
"I'll always remember how, not long after Barack and I got married, the two of us would take a couple of our friends along to collect signatures for his very first campaign for the state Legislature" in Illinois, she said in a recent campaign video that shows wedding and early campaign photos. "We'd knock on doors, we'd get to know our neighbors and talk to folks about the issues right on their front step or even in their living room."
Beyond the political calculations, any career politician making a last run for office is bound to get sentimental.
President Bill Clinton did in 1996. President George W. Bush much less so in 2004, although Laura Bush played that role.
At 50, Obama has been running for something every few years since 1996, when he was first elected to the Illinois Senate. The only loss on his record came in a 2000 primary challenge to a Democratic congressman.
If he's re-elected, Obama is likely to be out campaigning in two years for his party's congressional candidates and in four years for the Democratic presidential nominee.
But he says the name Barack Obama won't be on another ballot.
"He knows this is his last hurrah," says Lakoff, "and, as awful as campaigning must be to a sane human being, it is exciting, it is self-affirming. You get a kind of glow and aura that you can't get in any other way."
Associated Press writer Christopher Wills in Springfield, Ill., contributed to this report.
Birth Certificate -- "Born In The USA"
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/27/obama-birth-certificate-r_n_854248.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(April 27, 2011) --</strong></a> The White House <a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/04/27/president-obamas-long-form-birth-certificate" target="_hplink">released</a> President Barack Obama's "long form" birth certificate, adding documentation to a longstanding discussion over his ability to serve as commander in chief. "We do not have time for this kind of silliness," Obama said. "We have better stuff to do. I have got better stuff to do. We have got big problems to solve." (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Osama Bin Laden Killed -- "Tonight, Tonight"
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/01/osama-bin-laden-dead-killed_n_856091.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(May 1, 2011)</strong></a> -- In a televised address to the nation, Obama announces that Osama bin Laden is dead. His death was the result of a U.S. operation launched today in Abbottabad, Pakistan, against a compound where bin Laden was believed to be hiding. "[T]oday's achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people," Obama proclaimed. (Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)
Debt Ceiling Deal -- "Gold On The Ceiling"
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/02/obama-debt-ceiling-deal-jobs_n_916285.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(Aug. 2, 2011) --</strong></a> After the Senate passed a bill to raise the debt limit, Obama pleaded with Congress to shift their attention to jobs. "I will urge them to immediately take some steps -- bipartisan, common-sense steps -- that will make a difference; that will create a climate where businesses can hire, where folks have more money in their pockets to spend, where people who are out of work can find good jobs," he said. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
Don't Ask Don't Tell -- "Don't Stop Believin'"
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/20/barack-obama-dont-ask-dont-tell-repeal-statement_n_971662.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(Sept. 20, 2011) --</strong></a> As the ban on gays serving in the military came to an end, Obama hailed the fresh start, celebrating the fact that "patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love." (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
Iraq War To End -- "Homeward Bound"
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/21/obama-iraq-troop-withdrawal_n_1024108.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(Oct. 21, 2011) --</strong></a> Obama announced that all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by 2011, fulfilling a promise that dated back to his campaign. "As a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end," Obama said. "So today I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year." (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Singing Al Green's "Let's Stay Together"
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/20/obama-al-green-apollo-theater_n_1218070.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(Jan. 20, 2012) --</strong></a> During a fundraiser at Harlem's historic Apollo Theater, Obama delivered a memorable musical message to his donors. With Rev. Al Green in attendance, Obama sang part of Green's hit song "Let's Stay Together," drawing strong applause from the crowd.
Singing Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago"
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/21/obama-sings-sweet-home-chicago_n_1292576.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(Feb. 21, 2012) --</strong></a> Days after his Al Green rendition, Obama flexed his vocal chords again with a hometown favorite. The East Room of the White House had its blues fix filled when the president started swinging "Sweet Home Chicago."
Gay Marriage -- "Can't Fight This Feeling"
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/09/obama-gay-marriage_n_1503245.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(May 9, 2012) --</strong></a> In a sit-down interview with ABC's Robin Roberts, Obama explained his evolution on the issue, affirming his support for gay marriage. "[A]t a certain point I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married," he said.
Immigration -- "With Arms Wide Open"
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/15/obama-immigration-order-deportation-dream-act_n_1599658.html " target="_hplink"><strong>(June 15, 2012) --</strong></a> The Obama administration addressed America's immigration issue, announcing that it will halt deportations and grant work permits to young individuals eligible for Dream-Act benefits. "They pledge allegiance to our flag," Obama said. "They are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper."(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Health Care Reform -- "Beautiful Day"
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/28/supreme-court-health-care-decision_n_1585131.html" target="_hplink"><strong>(June 28, 2012) --</strong></a> After weeks of speculation that Obama's signature piece of legislation could be overturned, the Supreme Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate is constitutional. "It should be pretty clear that I didn't do this because it's good politics," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/28/obama-health-care-ruling_n_1632953.html" target="_hplink">Obama said</a>. "I did it because it's good for the country." (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)