Carolyn Kaster, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama faces a long re-election campaign having all but given up on the economy rebounding in any meaningful way before November 2012. His own budget office predicts unemployment will stay at about 9 percent, a frightening number for any president seeking a second term.
Obama's prospects aren't entirely grim, however. The GOP, heavily influenced by the tea party, may nominate someone so deeply flawed or right-leaning that, Democrats hope, Obama can persuade Americans to give him a second chance rather than risk the alternative.
Democrats say the man who ran on hope and change in 2008 will have to claw his way toward a second term with a sharply negative campaign.
The strengths and weaknesses of his prospects seem clear.
Next year's unemployment rate is likely to be the highest in a presidential election since 1940. But the leading Republican contenders have denigrated Social Security, switched positions on critical issues and done other things that might make them ripe targets for Obama's well-funded campaign.
Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway says GOP candidates, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, may turn off independent voters with their embrace of tea party stands on taxes, spending and program cuts.
Obama "should lump them all together and make them answer for their slash-and-burn politics," said Hattaway, a former top aide to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama's rival for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
To do so, Hattaway said, Obama must link the candidates to congressional Republicans, blamed by Democrats for the nation's stalled job growth and recent downgrade of U.S. creditworthiness.
Making the connection might not prove easy.
Obama's potential challengers have avoided getting dragged into details of the bitter Capitol Hill fights over deficit spending. At least for now, they can lob criticisms at the president while offering few specific, measurable alternatives.
"President Obama oversaw an economy that created zero jobs last month, and that is unacceptable," Romney said Friday.
But the influence of the tea party and other conservative groups may give Obama some openings, by pushing the GOP field so far to the right that the candidates risk alienating vital independent voters.
In a debate last month, the top contenders pledged to oppose a deficit-reduction plan even if it cut $10 in spending for every $1 raised by new taxes. Perry, who entered the race after that debate, also has taken a tough stand against higher taxes.
Obama's team says independents, who might pay scant attention to ideologically driven primaries, will find such positions extreme when they compare the eventual GOP nominee and the president.
Political aide David Axelrod hinted that Obama will try to sharpen his differences with Republicans who insist on spending cuts in virtually every area and who refuse to let tax cuts expire, as scheduled, for the wealthiest.
It's hard "to create an economy in which people can get decent jobs and raise a family at the same time we're cutting back on our commitment to spending on education and research and development that will create innovation and jobs," Axelrod said in an interview.
The Republicans' "essential message is, let's go back to the policies that helped get us in this mess," he said, citing Wall Street deregulation and corporate tax breaks.
If GOP lawmakers, backed by the presidential hopefuls, continue to thwart Obama's bid to mix targeted spending cuts with tax increases, Axelrod said, "we're going to take our case to the American people."
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