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Same Goal, Altered Path for Democrats

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call

Not long ago, Democrats had it all: the first African-American president sitting in the Oval Office, the first female Speaker of the House and even a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Four years later, the only remaining piece - the presidency - might be taken away from them.

"The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term," President-Elect Barack Obama said on Nov. 4, 2008, in Chicago's Grant Park.

From an inherited economy that continues to sputter to pushing through a polarizing overhaul of health care, Obama's first four years in the White House have been politically difficult, and the incumbent is left with a rocky and very different path to a second term .

Democrats revelled in a protracted Republican presidential nominating contest this year that featured a parade of GOP characters, but the president's popularity is low and Democrats cannot focus the election solely on a candidate who once captured the imagination of a country. Instead, they prefer an election centered on the Republican challenger, in an attempt to lead independent voters in a select few swing states to conclude that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is out of touch with the middle class.

"President Obama had a very ambitious agenda and it was the right thing to do to move the country forward," said Democratic consultant Tom McMahon, who was executive director of the Democratic National Committee in 2008.

But it wasn't easy to convert what may have been the best presidential campaign in modern history - armed with 13 million email addresses - into a tool for governing. And the president's legislative agenda - the 2009 stimulus law, the 2010 health care overhaul and the cap-and-trade climate change bill that never made it to the president's desk - stirred a sleeping Republican Party and a phalanx of conservative tea party activists concerned about any expansion of government.

More importantly, the president's handling of health care overhaul - and the efforts of Romney and the Republicans to use the issue against him - may neutralize one of the Democrats' typically most potent political weapons.

"It has taken some of the air out of one of the mainstays that Democrats can fall back on," one Democratic strategist said of the president's hands-off approach to getting the health care law passed and of the idea that he waited too long to promote it after enactment.

And although Obama's campaign slogan is "Forward," he is leading the country at a time when a majority of Americans say the nation is headed off on the wrong track. In addition, the president's approval rating has fallen considerably from the first months of his administration. Then, the public approved of the job he was doing by a 2-to-1 margin and today the country is evenly divided on Obama's performance.

Tallying Electoral Votes

That raises the stakes for his re-election, and greatly alters the map.

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