Obama says he’s 2012 ‘underdog’

President Obama on Monday took the extraordinary step of declaring himself the underdog in the 2012 race for the White House.

He acknowledged that voters are not better off than they were four years ago, and face a mortgage crisis, unemployment above 9 percent and a bumpy stock market.

“Well, I don’t think they’re better off than they were four years ago. They’re not better off than they were before Lehman’s collapse, before the financial crisis, before this extraordinary recession that we’re going through,” Obama said in a television interview.

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“Nobody's going to deny we’re not where we need to be,” said Obama, who after a tough primary fight sailed to election in 2008 on the promise of hope and change, winning states no Democrat had won in a generation.

“I don't mind,” Obama said. “I'm used to being the underdog.”

By casting himself in that role, Obama is managing expectations for his reelection bid with both the media and his political base, which has been unhappy with White House concessions to Republicans.

Obama’s reelection campaign likely hopes Democrats, convinced the president faces a serious political battle, will stop complaining about what Obama has not done and get focused on ensuring a Democrat remains in the White House for another four years.

In his interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Obama emphasized the steps his administration has taken to improve the economy. He also cast himself as someone who has tried to reach across the aisle.

“I think that what we’ve seen is that we’ve been able to make steady progress to stabilize the economy, but the unemployment rate is still way too high,” Obama said. “And that’s why it’s so critical for us to make sure that we are taking every action we can to put people back to work.”

Obama said he is confident that voters will see that he is working to make the nation’s workers and businesses competitive, and that he hopes voters see that he has tried at every turn to work with Republicans.

He said the problem is that each time he reaches out, “all we get from them is ‘no.’ ”

“I'll be the first to acknowledge that relations between myself and the Republican Congress have not been good over the last several months, but it wasn't for lack of effort,” he said.

The president is struggling to get Congress to move forward on his $447 billion jobs package; House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Monday said the package is dead, rejecting Obama’s demand earlier in the day that it be approved by the end of October.

The White House has spent most of 2011 battling resurgent Republicans in the House who repeatedly have forced their will on Obama.

The president called for a spending freeze at the outset of talks on legislation to keep the government funded in 2011, but eventually conceded to a package that cut spending by nearly $40 billion. Over the summer, Obama, who demanded that tax hikes be included in legislation to raise the debt ceiling, signed a deal that included no new taxes but did contain steep cuts to spending.

A majority of Americans also sees Obama as the underdog, according to a new poll released Monday.

Fifty-five percent of those polled by ABC News and The Washington Post expect whoever wins the GOP presidential nomination to win the White House next year. Only 37 percent believed Obama would prevail.

The White House has spent most of 2011 fighting to win back independent voters critical to his thumping of GOP Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in the 2008 race. Yet 54 percent of independents polled said they believe the Republican candidate will win over Obama next year.

To be sure, Obama has many advantages over his to-be-determined Republican rival.

The president’s campaign operation in Chicago is busy fundraising and is expected to enjoy a major edge over whichever Republican emerges from what could be a brutal primary fight. Obama is not facing a primary challenge.

The president also enjoys the White House bully pulpit, which he used on Monday to trash the two leading GOP contenders for the White House, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for embracing hard-right policies that most voters oppose.

“From economics to immigration, Gov. Perry, Gov. Romney and the Republican field have embraced policies that the American people oppose,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a memo.

“The campaign to win the Republican nomination has become a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Tea Party.”

And Republicans have been dissatisfied with their own field of presidential candidates, leading to calls for another candidate to enter the race even at this late date. While Republicans are likely to rally around their eventual nominee, it is unclear how strong that candidate will be.

This story was posted at 3:23 and updated at 6:18 p.m.