President Obama, the human Rorschach test, faces his biggest challenge to date

President Obama repeatedly described himself during the 2008 presidential race as a human Rorschach test. 

People saw what they wanted to see and projected their own hopes and fears onto the future president. 

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Obama’s campaign team believes that worked to his advantage in 2008, with Democrats seeing a Kennedy reincarnated and waves of first-time voters seizing the moment to elect the nation’s first black president.

But after four years of governing, the mystique behind Obama is largely gone, and the president faces a challenge in motivating liberal supporters who believe he didn’t live up to his promise. 

“I knew when we were in the final stages of that campaign in 2008 that people did project a tremendous amount onto him,” Obama senior adviser David Axelrod acknowledged during an interview earlier this month at the president’s Chicago campaign headquarters. 

He said Obama faces a challenge in firing up his troops after the brutal fights over the last three years, and that in the 2012 campaign he knew there would be an “added degree of difficulty to satisfying everyone, which you knew you weren’t going to be able to do.”

Axelrod also offers the reminder that Obama will be judged against his GOP opponent, and not the 2008 version of himself. 

“Ultimately, we’re not going to be running against an idealized version of Barack Obama,” Axelrod said. “We’re going to be running against a flesh-and-blood opponent, a Republican opponent, who will present their own vision and bring their own record and their own ideas. 

“And then people will judge [whether] they trust [Obama’s] character, who offers the greatest possibility for the future and who has their interests in the center of their vision,” he said. 

The president’s team argues that Obama the president has been consistent with Obama the candidate and that some liberals are disappointed with Obama for doing exactly what he said he would do. They suggest some of his 2008 supporters projected hopes on Obama he explicitly said he would not fulfill. 

Afghanistan serves as the clear example. Obama said he would withdraw troops from Iraq and move the focus to Afghanistan, but this still disappointed many of his voters, who thought the campaign of hope and change meant an end to both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. 

“Anyone who’s spent time listening to him would understand that there is a real continuity and a real consistency to his vision and his message,” Axelrod said. 

Liberals are in no mood to be told that they simply weren’t listening in 2008, however. Just look at the bruising White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer received at the Netroots Nation conference last week.

“Talking about a Rorschach test implies that voters are to blame — but the disappointment of many progressive and independent voters is due to President Obama’s own failure to fight for campaign promises he made,” said Adam Green, founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and one of Obama’s most outspoken liberal critics.

Obama compromised with conservative Democrats during the healthcare debate, and with Republicans on a tax deal in December that forced him to break a campaign promise and extend Bush-era tax rates for wealthier taxpayers. 

 “Obama’s campaign slogan was not ‘Compromise You Can Believe In’ — and Americans don’t favor bad compromises that hurt middle-class families, like forcing grandma to work longer before retirement,” Green said.

Axelrod hopes the specter of a Republican president will ease the disappointment of rank-and-file liberals. 

“I think we’re going to do very well in that contest. For three and a half years, a president is measured against himself and an idealized version of himself in a kind of referendum. For the last six months, it becomes a contest between two candidates, and that’s a much more focused and realistic contest.”

But that theory has holes with what former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs dubbed the “professional left.” 

Pfeiffer’s grilling at Netroots Nation, after all, came after the first big Republican debate, where GOP candidates came together mostly to criticize Obama. 

Republicans are salivating at the thought that the 2008 idealists who supported Obama will not come to the polls next year. 

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“The coalition he built in 2008 was full of idealists who bought into the Obama rhetoric and his promises and platitudes,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden. “But he turned out to be an idealist with no real ideas. And on the No. 1 issue, the economy, he’s at the point where even his best answers are just the same old excuses.”

Larry Berman, a political science professor at the University of California-Davis, said the president is the only actor in politics for people “to transfer their hopes and aspirations for providing just the type of leadership the system was designed to thwart.”

As a result, despite the difficulties of his first term, Berman thinks Obama still has the potential to inspire his supporters. 

“Yes, the realities of governing have forced Obama to define himself in ways that have lowered his current job approval numbers,” Berman said. “But once the election choice narrows and our nation starts displacing our hopes onto one of the two candidates who will lead us, it’s back to the Rorschach test once again.”