NPR logo Maybe Obama's 2012 Re-election Odds Top 2008; Maybe Not

Maybe Obama's 2012 Re-election Odds Top 2008; Maybe Not

President Obama at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., Sept. 16, 2011. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP hide caption

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

President Obama at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., Sept. 16, 2011.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

At a fundraising dinner Thursday in a luxury Washington apartment, President Obama reportedly sought to reassure guests at the soiree that things weren't nearly as bad for him or Democrats as they'd been hearing.

Evan McMorris-Santoro of Talking Points Memo reports Obama told those attending the $35,800 a couple dinner:

"Now, I know that, over the last couple of months, there have been Democrats who voiced concerns and nervousness about, well, in this kind of economy, isn't this just — aren't these just huge headwinds in terms of your reelection?," Obama said.

"And I just have to remind people that — here's one thing I know for certain," he continued. "The odds of me being reelected are much higher than the odds of me being elected in the first place."

Well, yes and no.

It is true that the president had a truly improbable journey to the White House. For a first-term senator with no chief executive experience whose prior job had been as a state senator, he was a long-shot, to say the least.

But he had the wind at his back in important ways. He could run against the unpopular Iraq War in a way Hillary Clinton couldn't since she had voted for it.

He could run as the agent of change and a clear break with the past, also in a way she couldn't since she had all the Clinton administration-era baggage.

He could trump Clinton's claim to be a presidential candidate who could make history as the first woman with a real chance to be president with the implied counterargument that he would be a historic first too as the first African American.

And he could frame his election as a referendum on the Bush presidency, one of the most unpopular presidencies of recent times, and argue that Sen. John McCain would be a third term for Bush.

Also, congressional Democrats still had momentum coming out of the 2006 elections where they gained control of the House and Senate.

Throw in the economic crisis that began in 2007 with all the voter anxieties it provoked and the fact that the president was something of a blank slate people could project their hopes onto and the improbable became probable as many energized voters, including young ones and African Americans turned out in truly remarkable numbers.

That was 2008, however. In 2012, it is true, Obama has the power of presidential incumbency and that still has incalculable value.

But he is no longer the blank slate even though he is still enigmatic to many voters. He is much better known.

He now has a White House record that he must defend. They include an economic stimulus and a health care law many voters have doubts about if they aren't outright hostile to them.

For many of his supporters, his record includes alleged cave-ins to congressional Republicans, the latest being the agreement to raise the debt ceiling, a process which left him looking weakened.

The awful economy which, paradoxically, gave him a tail wind in 2008 is now a brutal headwind with unemployment above 9 percent. He has history against him in this respect; no president has been re-elected in modern history with such high unemployment.

Meanwhile, Obama is no longer a feel-good novelty. Yes, he's still the first African American president. He will always be that in American history.

But Americans who are unemployed and worried about keeping a roof over their heads, or employed and still having trouble sleeping at night due to their economic anxieties want, first and foremost, a vastly improved economy. If they've lost faith in Obama to deliver that, and many have, little else really matters.

What's more, either Texas Gov. Rick Perry or Mitt Romney is likely to be a much more formidable candidate than McCain was.

So, yes, his ascent to the presidency initially faced super long odds although conditions came together to shorten them immensely. But the odds of his re-election seem to be going in the other direction, lengthening not shortening.