CHICAGO — Immediately inside President Barack Obama's campaign headquarters is a sign counting down days to the election (507 as of today) and a poster that reads, "Respect. Empower. Include. Win."
The words are set against familiar Obama blue but carry the feel of something from a motivational bin at Staples, a subtle reminder of the challenge facing the re-election effort taking shape on an entire floor of the Prudential building in downtown Chicago.
Voters in 2008 gravitated in waves to Obama's promise of "hope" and "change," transforming slogans into the powerful ethos of a movement. But Obama is an insider now — the target of Republican calls for change — and hope has been buffeted by a poor economy, spiraling national debt and relentless partisan rancor in Washington.
To persuade Americans to stick with him in 2012, an array of strategists say, Obama will have to find the right balance of past and future, emphasizing accomplishments while promising to guide the country out of a still dark time.
"At the end of the day, he's got to talk about hope again," said Garry South, a Democratic strategist based in California. "Not in the theoretical way he did in 2008; rather that if 'we all pull together, there will be a better tomorrow.' "
Obama's team indicates the emphasis will be along those lines, though only hints are given of an overarching theme.
"Elections are always about the future. This president has taken on some difficult issues and fights with the future in mind. We're pressing forward here," said David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist.
"The question," Axelrod said, "is going to be who represents the better vision for how we progress, who holds out the greatest hope for the future? I think when people look at Obama they will see their own concerns and aspirations reflected in the things that he's doing far more than they'll see in the other side."
So if hope isn't the key word for Obama 2012, it appears to be a key message — a dented but determined version.
• • •
Republicans view high unemployment across the nation as Obama's biggest vulnerability. No president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has won a second term when the employment rate has topped 7.2 percent on Election Day. It is currently 9.1 percent.
"We don't have to worry about anything else that goes on except for that one number," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who lost to Obama in 2008.
The GOP has stepped up criticism of the president's efforts to resuscitate the economy, chiefly the $787 billion stimulus.
"President Obama promised to turn our struggling economy around, and he failed on all accounts," said Ryan Tronovitch, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "The 2012 election will be about one thing: the economy."
There have been modest job gains and the stock market has rebounded. Corporations are healthier. The auto bailout, once decried by many Republicans, helped save a quintessential American industry.
Still, it's a difficult case to make that things are better in the face of high unemployment and even harder to sell the notion, supported by economists, that White House policies of the past two years helped prevent an epic failure. Obama is also limited in how much he can blame his predecessor, George W. Bush.
"We just live in such a 'What have you done for me lately?' culture and it's tough when you're trying to get credit for something that didn't happen — we didn't have a depression," said Jonathan Alter, a columnist and author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One.
"It's that 'looking out for you' part that he has to worry about," Alter said. "When economic times are bad, people often feel, understandingly, that nobody in Washington is looking out for them."
• • •
Obama's 2012 game plan begins where 2008 did: in the legions of youthful, passionate supporters who redefined grass-roots campaigning, online political communication and fundraising. The campaign is training more than 1,500 organizers who have pledged to work 20 to 40 hours a week this summer as part of a lofty goal to reconnect with every Obama backer from 2008.
In Tampa, where Obama's campaign arm Organizing For America has remained since the last election, more than 80 volunteers were trained on a recent weekend. They have spread out across Florida to conduct small group meetings and begin walking door to door.
Volunteers have been coached on not just the broad highlights of Obama's term (health care, financial reform) but also victories like more funding for student loans and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — the first bill Obama signed into law — which gives more freedom for workers to sue for wage discrimination. They will tell voters about green energy initiatives funded by the stimulus.
The emphasis will shift to the future as a Republican nominee emerges. "The volunteers are going to lay out what's at stake, 'This is our vision; this is theirs,' " said Mitch Stewart, the battleground states director.
Outside the office Stewart shares with national field director Jeremy Bird in Chicago, three-dozen campaign workers sit at long desks, picking at salads and chicken nuggets, earbuds in, typing on laptops or talking on phones — the beginning rhythms of a campaign.
On the far wall hang maps of a dozen states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Florida. (They happen to be key swing states, but don't read into that, a staffer says.)
A stash of new cell phones are on a table, waiting to be dispatched to summer organizers.
At the side of the cavernous main room, formerly occupied by a law firm, sits a bean bag toss game called Cornhole, reflecting a relaxed environment where jeans and flip-flops are the norm. Another wing, still empty and with a view of Millennium Park, is reserved for a volunteer call center.
Obama, 49, is the first president in modern time to base his re-election outside Washington. Partly that is to provide a central location for a grass-roots organization, the campaign says. But it's also being used to convey him as someone in touch with everyday Americans, away from pundits and power brokers.
"You can get terribly misled by listening to the insider chatter in Washington, you can focus on the wrong things," said Axelrod, who left the White House in February to return to Chicago in advance of the campaign.
• • •
Obama will not only have to re-energize his own base but the independent voters who were critical to him in 2008. In the 2010 midterm elections, independents shifted to Republicans, giving the GOP control of the House and eating away at the Democratic majority in the Senate.
Campaign advisers indicate Obama will appeal to middle-class concerns and a shared desire for economic security and educational opportunity. In the same way, he plans to aggressively court the Hispanic community, an emerging political force.
He has tried to strike a bipartisan tone, forging a budget deal late last year that included a temporary extension of the Bush-era tax cuts (he now wants to get rid of them) and projecting himself as above the fray as partisan fighting over another budget extension this spring nearly ended in a government shutdown.
He has tried to appease Republican demands for more oil drilling. He muted his national security critics with the daring decision to go after Osama bin Laden.
But polls show troubling signs on his handling of the economy and growing support for a Republican alternative in the White House. If things do not improve, Obama will face an increasingly precarious challenge of explaining what has happened, what has been done and what he'll offer new.
He is feeling out a message at fundraisers, talking of preventing a second Great Depression while casting himself as ever optimistic.
"It's not as cool to be an Obama supporter as it was in 2008, with the posters and all that stuff," he said to laughter in Miami on Monday. "But the values that motivated me haven't changed, and I hope they haven't changed for you either.
"And if we do our part, then I think 2012 will just be an extension of what we started in 2008 and we can look back with great pride about what we accomplished, because I think we will be able to right this ship and make sure America is headed for a brighter day."
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.