Nothing inspires Democrats like the Barack Obama swagger — the supreme self-confidence on stage, the self-certainty in private.
So nothing inspires more angst than when that same Obama stumbles, as he has leaving the gate in 2012.
That's the unmistakable reality for Democrats since Obama officially launched his re-election campaign three weeks ago. Obama, not Mitt Romney, is the one with the muddled message — and the one who often comes across as baldly political. Obama, not Romney, is the one facing blowback from his own party on the central issue of the campaign so far – Romney's history with Bain Capital. And most remarkably, Obama, not Romney, is the one falling behind in fundraising.
National polls, which had shown Obama with a slight but steady lead over Romney through April, moved into a virtual tie this month - despite Romney's clumsy conclusion to the GOP race.
Surely, all of this could prove to be ephemeral and meaningless in the arc of a long presidential contest. One Democratic consultant who often advises the campaign said that although Obama has spent a few weeks on the defensive, top Obama aides are unfazed.
"These guys don't panic, don't turn into a circular firing squad, don't doubt their strategy," the consultant said.
But for now, it's impossible to overlook the early struggles of a White House and political team notorious for discipline and effectiveness. Consider the rocks that piled up in Obama's backpack this week as he and Romney moved into the opening phase of the general-election campaign:
* Romney has surprised his many critics with a clear and consistent focus on the economy, hands down the issue of the race. After months of missteps, the guy looks steady and disciplined again, much like he did in the early days of the GOP primaries. By playing to his strength, he has masked his weaknesses - for now.
By contrast, Obama has looked unsteady. Some Democrats have watched with dismay as the focus of Obama's public comments bounced from student loans to tax cuts for the rich to trade to Bain Capital.
* Bain has turned into pain this week. For the first time, some top Democrats are questioning the strategy coming out of the reelection campaign's Chicago headquarters, with some agreeing with Newark Mayor Cory Booker that Obama is making it too easy to paint him as anti-business. Ed Rendell and Steve Rattner have also publicly voiced concerns, echoed by many others in private conversations. The result has been a minor, but very public, split in the party on an issue Obama's camp hoped would tag Romney with a series of crippling labels: elitist, mean-spirited, anti-worker.
"I feel like they are overly relying on the have-nots out-voting the haves," said one well-known Democrat close to the campaign. "The economy has gotten a lot better for a lot of people. Instead of making those people feel good about growing businesses, the campaign seems to assume that angry people will prevail. There were successful business leaders in the 2008 coalition, who wanted to use their success to do good. We're losing that inspiration."
An Obama campaign official responded: "A few elites in the Northeast Corridor have had a different reaction to the discussion of Mitt Romney's record than most Americans. Hundreds of thousands of voters have seen the full version of [the Obama's campaign's] 'Steel' [ad] online, and the response has been such that we expanded the buy in Ohio. … Mayor Booker's comments weren't anticipated, but they did drive a discussion of Romney's history of profiting off of bankrupting companies onto all three network newscasts."
* Some key Democrats say they have been dismayed watching Obama become a divider not a uniter, trying to incite anger among women, students and older voters. It's striking how, in private conversations with Obama advisers, they openly talk of chucking the feel-good politics of 2008 for a very conventional form of political warfare this time around. A low-grade friction has emerged among advisers on whether the hack approach is damaging the brand.
"This guy's narrative is to be big," complained one veteran of the 2008 campaign. "How do you capture that in a campaign when all anybody is focused on is the daily tit-for-tat? He has to get up and out of it. … The campaign jumps so quickly into these fights that it distracts from what the president is doing."
But the Obama team anticipates a nasty campaign on both sides, one that will look different from 2008 in another way: Obama can't expand the map the way he did last time out, so he'll need to grind out close victories in tough states to prevail. That's all about ginning up the base with us-versus-them politics, not high-flying, high-minded oratory.
* The jobs picture darkened just as Obama launched his campaign, undercutting his central pitch.
After a series of promising jobs reports through the winter, the figures for the past two months were once again disappointing. That makes it harder for Obama to argue that the country is clearly headed in the right direction, and easier for Romney to contend that recovery will only come with change.
In a Washington Post/ABC News poll this week, nearly twice as many people said they were worse off financially under Obama than said they were better off. And more than half the respondents disapproved of Obama's handling of the economy, for the 20th poll in a row.
"Now it's back to the new normal: Jobs are hovering at a level that doesn't make any real progress, along with people continuing to drop out of the workforce," said Matt McDonald of Hamilton Place Strategies, who is an outside consultant to the Romney campaign.
The next monthly jobs report comes out next Friday, offering the possibility that this narrative will be cemented, or diluted.
James Carville, while generally praising the campaign, said: "I've always had an issue with them talking about things getting better. When you say that, you kind of signal to people that they don't feel it yet. And in a weird way, you're telling them you're kind of out of touch."
* New worries swept European economies, with potential ripple effects as U.S. corporations and investors fret about the economic chaos that could ensue if a beleaguered Greece pulls out of the European Union. The term "Grexit" – for Greek exit – spread along with a darker mood on Wall Street. The situation is beyond Obama's control, with huge potential for global disruption. If nothing else, it's a reminder how Obama's prospects are held hostage by an economy held hostage by European woes.
* Biden, who looked like he was going to be an asset with Rust Belt swing voters who have become increasingly skeptical of Obama, instead could wind up as a drag on the ticket. A USA Today/Gallup poll this week found more people viewed him unfavorably than viewed him favorably. That was the first time Biden's numbers were underwater as vice president, with even worse numbers in swing states than the nation as a whole.
* Biden put his boss in a jam by forcing Obama's hand in announcing his support for gay marriage – making his position look crass and wobbly, rather than brave or historic, as it could have if it had been rolled out as a surprise and framed by the White House rather than by opponents and the media.
Obama admitted that he had made the decision months ago and his aides said he was holding his announcement until closer to the Democratic National Convention, making it look like he was playing games with what many influential Democrats consider to be the top civil-rights issue of our time.
* Putting aside how the decision was announced, several polls have found that the substance of it has proved to be at best a wash nationally – giving him no bump — at the same time that Democratic strategists expect it to hurt him in key regions of two of the swingest of swing states, Virginia and Ohio, where Obama is holding narrow leads in the polls.
"It ain't gonna play good in some places – that's for sure," Carville said.
The Obama campaign official replied, "With GOP super PACs added in, there's no doubt the GOP could be at parity with us on the air. But the Romney campaign faces a danger in outsourcing their message to super PACs. And while we're building the largest grassroots campaign in history on the ground, they made a huge mistake in not replicating the strong ground organization that was critical to reelecting President Bush."
* After the luxury of quietly building the campaign while the Republicans brawled, Obama's team now is being second-guessed as they begin to show their cards, and ramp up their state-by-state organizing.
Sue Dvorsky, the Democratic chair in the swing state of Iowa, said: "I understand they're a big organization and they're running a 50-state strategy. But sometimes when we need a decision, I'd like to get it faster."
* Obama could lose the money race. He smashed fundraising records in 2008, but Romney and his allies have outraised Obama and his backers $402 million to $340 million in this cycle so far, POLITICO found in an analysis that included super PACs, party committees and the campaign.
It's surprising for a challenger's side to be at parity with an incumbent, let alone ahead. But Obama has found fundraising to be harder than expected, in part because he has alienated so many financial-services executives with his rhetoric and policies. In addition, the Obama-blessed super PACs have been slow to get off the ground — in part because some donors apparently have Obama's admonitions about big money perverting the system still ringing in their ears from 2008.
The Obama official said: "The president didn't support gay marriage because the politics were clear or easy, he did it because it was the right thing to do. If Mitt Romney wants to engage on this topic, he'll have to explain why he doesn't support civil unions like President Bush did in 2004 which could roll back a whole host of rights and benefits for gay couples, and why he wants to enshrine discrimination into the Constitution by passing a federal marriage amendment."
* Polls show that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is likely to survive his recall election on June 5, providing a psychological boost to Republicans in a swing state in the Rust Belt, and likely touching off second-guessing among labor on the left over whether it was a mistake to pick such a high-profile fight – and pour so much money into it – in the midst of a neck-and-neck presidential race.
* Romney has galvanized the right more quickly than expected, and has shown discipline in sticking to an economic message, even when gay marriage was dominating the headlines. His Boston headquarters is more confident than ever, at the same time that so many Democrats are getting the willies.