Obama’s path still cloudy

Clinging to their compliments regarding former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R) healthcare law, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s (R) fine work as ambassador to China and the prospect that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) will somehow be nominated by the GOP, Team Obama has begun to accept that the audacity of hoping for an anemic Republican field won’t get President Obama reelected in 2012.

As the Republican race begins in earnest, and Obama kicks off his own reelection campaign, it is increasingly clear that the path to an Obama victory is anything but clear. Stubborn joblessness, soaring gas prices, the still-rising cost of healthcare insurance, the apathy of Obama supporters, the erosion of support from white working-class and suburban voters and the considerable sums of secret money conservatives promise to pour into the campaign all pose challenges to his plan to win again. Taken together, they might be insurmountable.

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Obama’s money men are traveling the country, making their pitch to wealthy donors, some of whom chose Hillary Clinton in 2008. According to The Wall Street Journal, their slideshow concedes Obama has lost support in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, declaring “POTUS maintains clear but narrowed support” but urging substantial donor support in light of the “significant work to do to increase support among key demographics.”

The post-midterm-shellacking bounce that saw Obama cut a deal with Republicans to extend tax cuts for all brackets, pass the START Treaty and a repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” then unite the nation with a powerful speech following the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., has abated. Obama’s approval ratings are still improved from the nadir of August 2010, but they will have to climb higher in the right places for him to win battleground states next year. Last year, according to Gallup, Obama’s approval fell from 2009 levels by 8 percent in Ohio, 11 percent in Pennsylvania, 10 percent in Wisconsin, 11 percent in Florida, 14 percent in Missouri, 11 percent in Virginia and 11 percent in Indiana.

The president’s political advisers have worked hard to soothe a disappointed liberal base, and repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the decision to no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court and recent movement on gun control have helped. Democrats also hope the battle over collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin will translate into increased union mobilization in next year’s election. But as the debate over public pensions bankrupting state governments spreads across the country, how much will Obama stick his neck out for labor?

The traditional demographics that favor Democrats are also no longer a given — Latinos aren’t likely to see any action on immigration reform before the election, the GOP made history by winning women in the midterm elections and Obama’s approval among young voters entering or navigating a perilous job market has dropped 21 points since he entered office, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll. 

The president has tried remaining above it all, calling on Republicans to join him in bipartisan education reform, avoiding the ugly budget battle — much to the consternation of congressional Democrats — and engaging in efforts to help Americans that have nothing to do with Washington, like his recent conference on bullying. Obama knows no matter the chaos in Japan or a destabilized Middle East, he will be given little credit for his leadership overseas, whatever the outcome.

In swing states Obama needs to win next year, unemployment, anti-debt sentiment and concerted challenges to his healthcare reform law are on the rise. And if those forces don’t turn around, the president’s approval can’t rise high enough for him to win.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.