It's been a rough four years since Barack Obama accepted his party's nomination during a celebratory Denver convention that launched the freshman Illinois senator to the White House.
Recovery from the worst economy since the Great Depression has been excruciatingly slow. The national unemployment rate has remained stubbornly above 8 percent.
And partisanship has rendered Congress all but inoperable (and historically unpopular) under the nation's first African-American president, whose ephemeral message of hope and change has lost its resonance even among some of his most ardent supporters.
As Democrats convene this week in Charlotte, N.C., to nominate Obama, 51, for a second term, the president will have what political analyst David Gergen characterized Monday as "the most precious moment a political party gets" — a prime-time conversation with the American people as the campaign heads into its final weeks.
Obama comes into the convention in a dead heat race nationally with GOP nominee Mitt Romney, but with some advantages.
Unchallenged in the primary season, he's got slim leads in most of the handful of swing states that will decide the election. He can pivot off Romney's convention of last week, which is viewed by many as only a partial success that resulted in little, if any, poll movement.
And, unlike Romney, he doesn't have to make people like him, because they do — at least a lot more than they like Romney, according to polls.
Obama has to outline a "plausible scenario for why the country will be better off over the next four years" if he's given a second term, political analyst Charlie Cook said Monday. It's the question Republicans have been pointedly asking, and one that Obama's surrogates have fumbled answering in recent days.
The Obama campaign has already indicated it will focus on the middle class, and portraying Romney as rich and out of touch during the convention's three days.
But, as Cook says, there has to be more than that.
"He has to provide a convincing argument to reintroduce hope," Cook told us Monday. "They've got to at least have the hope in there for the second term."
Romney and the Republicans last week toned down their anti-Obama rhetoric, and, taking a page from the Karl Rove/Crossroads GPS focus group playbook, targeted their appeal to 2008 Obama voters who are now disillusioned.
But in many ways, the Romney show in Tampa, Fla., fell short, even if one ignores the bizarre Clint Eastwood conversation with an empty chair. It provided Obama an opening.
Here's how: Because the Obama campaign got the jump on defining Romney — who until April was still immersed in a bitter, ever rightward-moving primary campaign — the Republicans had to use their convention to erase the Democrats' branding, Gergen says.
They did a good job, he says, but Romney's speech was long on humanization and short on substance.
Now, Gergen says, Democrats can pivot to defining what Romney stands for, just as they early on defined his business record and hammered on his refusal to release many years of tax returns.
The Obama campaign got started Monday when, on the eve of the convention, it released an ad running in swing states that claims Romney's tax plan would raise taxes on the middle class, while providing big tax cuts for the rich.
Obama's message also has to target young voters and Latinos, who polls show are less excited about voting this year than four years ago.
But what remains true is that Obama's sophisticated campaign operation, and Romney's inability to reach the "comfort and trust" threshold, have kept the president in the game, says Cook, the political analyst.
The economic forecasting firm IHS Global Insight has accurately predicted 14 of the past 16 presidential elections based on a formula of two economic indicators plus three political variables. The firm's current prediction, using July's economic data? Obama would lose, with 45 percent of the vote.
However, The Boston Globe this week quoted the head of IHS, Nigel Gault, as saying that other factors could play a role this year.
"Voters are not yet convinced the alternative to Obama is better," Gault told the Globe.
As NBC's Domenico Montanaro put it Monday at a poll briefing in Charlotte: It's an economy vs. likability election.
Romney's people may now be looking to the coming presidential debates to up their candidate's fortunes in that likability department. But his big shot for that came and went last week, Cook says.
"Debates are not the right venue for Romney to fix his problems."
Obama and his campaign no doubt agree, and are looking at the coming three days to fix their own problems: recapturing some spirit of hope; and answering the question of how Americans are better off now than four years ago, and how they will be better with him as president four years from now.
His challenge is to make the case that there was, and will be, more to his presidency than hope and change, and — as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said derisively last week — "thrill and pixie dust."
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