WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As Republicans scramble to find strong candidates willing to even enter the race to oust him from the White House next year, U.S. President Barack Obama is sitting pretty for now — and filling Democratic campaign coffers.
Along with the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden, Tuesday’s upset Democratic victory in a New York congressional race has further boosted Obama’s fortunes.
Although the economic recovery is slow and his approval rating is only lukewarm, Obama is just about where he wants to be with 17 months to go before Election Day 2012.
“Any incumbent president is in a good position to begin with, and at the same time you have a Republican Party that is not at full strength, even with his weaknesses, like the approval ratings and the economy,” said Princeton University presidential historian Julian Zelizer.
“He has a big record. Like it or hate it, he’s done a lot. And I think there is something to be said for that as an asset on the campaign trail,” he said.
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, seen as a possible tough opponent for Obama, took himself out of the running this week and Republican hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have stumbled while trying to explain apparent contradictions in their positions on Medicare and healthcare reform.
Obama’s campaign message is likely to be straightforward.
“It’s a fairly simple message: We have accomplished a lot, the country is in a much stronger position than it was four years ago, but we still have a lot of work to do and here’s what we want to do,” said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington.
Obama has appeared at several fundraisers for his campaign and the Democratic National Committee. He helped the DNC raise more than $14 million in April, according to a documents filed this week, more than twice what Republicans raised.
A new Fox News poll showed that 57 percent of registered voters believe Obama would be re-elected, almost double the 29 percent who thought so in December, although surveys show Americans still have significant doubts about his handling of the economy.
But to win in 2012, Obama will have to spell out a convincing vision for the future that is more specific than his “hope and change” message of 2008.
“I think people expect the president to work on the fundamentals and strengthen the economy, but they really want to be inspired. And that’s the Obama brand,” said Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway.
Obama’s campaign has not spelled out its 2012 theme, instead responding to opposition attacks.
Last month, it released Obama’s “long-form” birth certificate after television personality Donald Trump questioned whether he had been born in Hawaii. The real estate mogul, who briefly led among Republicans, soon dropped his flirtation with a candidacy.
“There will be no venom,” said Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley. “It will kind of be just how silly the opposition is ... to kind of just treat the opposition as kind of a comical fringe element in a way.”
At campaign events, Obama has emphasized his record and told supporters he needs four more years to tackle issues such as reforming the U.S. immigration system and addressing energy problems.
Obama is using the “Yes we can” message of 2008, and transforming it into “Yes we did,” Brinkley said. “If you believe in your brand you don’t do a complete reconfiguration in midstream unless you are in desperation mode. ... He has enough that he can showcase.”
The economy will be the biggest factor for 2012, with U.S. unemployment hovering around 9 percent and deep concerns about debt and budget deficits. Polls now favor Obama’s chances of defeating any current Republican contender, but that could change dramatically if the economy goes sour.
Obama will have to convince Americans that things are on the upswing, and that he has a plan for keeping them that way.
Most experts expect the economy to continue its sluggish improvement. Federal Reserve officials expressed confidence in the recovery this week, despite high gas prices and European financial jitters.
And Chrysler this week paid back $7.6 billion in loans from its 2009 bailout years before they were due. Obama and other Democrats are making the auto bailout — labeled by Republicans as misguided interference in private business — a central part of their campaign message that Obama supports U.S. industry and working class Americans.
Editing by Doina Chiacu and Alistair Bell