After the killing of Osama Bin Laden, as Americans debated the merits of releasing photos of his corpse and Pakistani officials fulminated over the commando incursion, Barack Obama's team was quietly engaged in another aspect of the fallout: working the triumph ever so deftly into the president's emerging strategy for his re-election in 2012. The White House is well aware that an aura of military success can fade away amid perceived failings on the home front, the clearest example being the elder George Bush's political collapse in the recession that followed the Gulf war.
So, within days, Obama was knitting the brazen raid into the theme introduced in his State of the Union speech in January, which summoned the country to innovation and renewal under the upbeat refrain, "We do big things." He made the link explicit in his remarks at the Kentucky military base that is home to soldiers who assisted in the raid. "It's easy to forget sometimes, especially in times of hardship, times of uncertainty - coming out of the worst recession since the Great Depression, we haven't fully recovered from that, [and] we've made enormous sacrifices in two wars - but the essence of America, the values that have defined us for more than 200 years, they don't just endure," he said. "They are stronger than ever. We are still the America that does the hard things, that does the great things. We're the nation that always dared to dream. We're the nation that's willing to take risks."
The theme echoes Ronald Reagan's sunny 1984 re-election pitch ("It's morning again in America"). It is consistent with Obama's 2008 campaign pledge to restore serious purpose to a Washington mired in petty gamesmanship.
There is just one problem: the biggest thing that the country needs to do is to find a way out of the Great Recession and into a new era of durable, broad-based prosperity. More than halfway into Obama's first term, that big thing is unfinished. Even optimists predict that unemployment will be barely below 8 per cent by election day. Gas and food prices are up and, at $14.3trn, the national debt looms large.
Because of this, talking about "big things" will not suffice. Obama will also need to explain why so much of the incisive diagnosis he offered for the country's troubles in 2008 still holds true today, after years of a presidency that was supposed to set things right - why the climb back is taking so long. Many on his party's liberal wing are arguing more loudly than ever that this will require engaging in a clearly drawn argument over economic world-views - over taxes, the safety net, the role of government and inequality - of the sort that Democrats have been avoiding for decades.
Obama has shown he has the insights for this kind of debate. In a prescient campaign speech to financiers in New York in March 2008, he provided an in-depth analysis of why the US middle and working classes were stagnating even as top-tier incomes soared, and bemoaned "decisions made in boardrooms, on trading floors and in Washington" that had produced a "distorted market that creates bubbles instead of steady, sustainable growth".
He went on: "A free market was never meant to be a free licence to take whatever you can get, however you can get it . . . The core of our economic success is the fundamental truth that each American does better when all Americans do better . . . I think that all of us here today would acknowledge that we've lost some of that sense of shared prosperity."In his 2008 quest to present himself in a post-partisan, unifying light, Obama never expanded this critique into a full-fledged condemnation of anti-tax, free-market orthodoxy - nor did he need to. George W Bush's unpopularity, John McCain's erratic campaigning and the shock of that autumn's financial collapse all but sealed the outcome, with the novelty of Obama's candidacy providing the main narrative. But the absence of a well-defined economic debate has come back to haunt him. Voters hearing about huge deficits assume that they are the result of his administration's Keynesian stimulus, when budget experts estimate that half of the country's swing into deficit derives from the Bush tax cuts - nearly ten times the impact of the stimulus.
Voters angry about big bonuses at bailed-out banks do not necessarily place the Wall Street winnings in the context of a vast, Republican-led shift in taxes, regulations and labour laws dating back to the late 1970s that has helped bring the country to levels of inequality not seen since the Roaring Twenties. So it was that, in the 2010 midterms, an electorate that told exit pollsters that it supported higher taxes on the wealthy and blamed Wall Street for the country's ills nonetheless voted in huge numbers for a Republican Party that was dead set against raising taxes on the wealthy and imposing tougher restrictions on financial dealings.
The stage is now set for a far more clarifying stand-off. Congressional Republicans, after successfully attacking Obama's health-care law for limiting the growth of Medicare, the government-run health insurance programme for the elderly and disabled, have lined up behind a proposal that would do away with Medicare entirely and replace it with subsidies that would cover only part of the cost of private insurance. This and the plan's other cuts in social spending would save billions - but those savings would, analysts say, be offset by the cost of the plan's tax cuts for the wealthy. Meanwhile, bankers and hedge-fund managers who backed Obama in 2008 have shifted their contributions to the Republicans (even though Wall Street has continued to flourish under Obama), hurting Democratic war chests but also liberating the president and his party to strike a more populist tone. Most crucially, the economic debate will be playing out regardless of what happens on the campaign trail - congressional Republicans, a cohort as conservative and ideologically monolithic as any ever known on Capitol Hill, are vowing to oppose raising the government's debt ceiling in the coming months unless there are significant additional cuts in spending.
For weeks, Obama had kept aloof from the fiscal fight, to the dismay of his supporters. But when he weighed in last month, it was with a forceful speech that suggested he might be prepared to make his re-election campaign the sort of referendum on economic philosophy and national priorities that the US has not had in years. He invoked the American conviction that "each one of us deserves some basic measure of security" and noted: "As a country that values fairness, wealthier individuals have traditionally borne a greater share of this burden than the middle class or those less fortunate . . . [This] hasn't hindered the success of those at the top of the income scale, who continue to do better and better with each passing year." He argued that the Republican vision of deep cuts in public programmes in exchange for even lower taxes "is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America".
Above the fray
Is this the tone he will take on to the campaign trail? It depends on how he and his team balance the tension that has defined his career - as a progressive with firm egalitarian convictions on the one hand and as a pragmatist seeking conciliation on the other. His advisers say that they want voters to be presented with a clear choice but they also want Obama to maintain his appeal as an above-the-fray problem-solver. Presenting a choice, they say, does not have to mean taking a hard edge. With the Republican Party drifting as far right as it has in recent years, the contrast will be plain.
“It will not be sufficient just to do the critique. It is important for Americans to understand where this president wants to go and the steps he's taking to get us there," Jim Margolis, Democratic media consultant and campaign adviser to Obama in 2008 and again this cycle, tells me.
The economic message will be threefold, Margolis says. First, Obama will acknowledge voters' anxiety: "One of the things [he] has
going for him is that he levels with people.
We saw it in the last campaign. No one is going to pretend these aren't challenging times for the country or that everything is perfect when people are paying $50 for a fill-up."
Second, he will do a better job of explaining what he has achieved - no easy task, because, in many cases, this means talking about crises averted rather than tangible improvements. "In the daily crush of issues and crises, it's sometimes hard to see all of the accomplishments," Margolis says. "One of the things you get to do in a campaign is devote some energy to telling these stories [that] demonstrate the president's political courage and his willingness to do what's right, even at great political risk. Perhaps people will say to themselves, 'Maybe there are some things that I hadn't thought about this way.'" Third, he will present the economic path forward.
Obama will have some advantages. The Republican field is looking lacklustre, so far - the putative front-runner, Mitt Romney, is drawing bipartisan ridicule for his attempts to distinguish the universal health-care legislation that he signed as governor of Massachusetts in 2006 from Obama's reforms.
The president's potent fundraising machine has set itself a goal of $1bn. Meanwhile, the country's demographics - with a growing proportion of ethnic minorities - tilt even more in his favour than three years ago. Nor must he carry all the states he won in 2008, though the campaign is not yet ceding any territory. The toughest going may be in the older, whiter, rust-belt states that have been hit hard by the recession - Ohio is the prime example - but the campaign will try to hold these areas by emphasising the success of Obama's rescue of the auto industry. It is more confident of holding on to the younger, more ethnically diverse states that were new to the Democratic fold in 2008, such as Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina.
But Obama carried these states and others because his history-making insurgent effort brought out a new wave of voters - the young, racial minorities and disaffected independents. In the Democratic Party debacle of the 2010 midterm elections, many of these voters stayed at home - in North Carolina alone, 1.7 million fewer people voted than in 2008. To prevail next year, he will need to bring these people back out, and more like them.
Can it be done? Marshall Ganz is doubtful. He is the organising guru who trained Obama's 2008 staff in building its formidable grass-roots network. He laments that the network has been left to languish. "That mobilisation was ready to be put to work on a policy agenda but
it never happened," he says. "To come around now and say, 'We're going to rebuild it' . . . That's very challenging."
The only way to revive this army, Ganz says, is to recharge Obama's mission with "moral energy". In 2008, that energy came partly from Obama's effort to "educate the country about race"; this time, Ganz says, it will take an effort to educate people about something arguably more divisive, the US economy - to explain why it has gone so off-kilter, to draw distinctions about which party is on whose side.
The question of 2012 is whether Obama the unifier is willing to have that difficult talk, too. It will require a sharper, more concrete rhetoric than did his 2008 performance, with its platitudes about "hope" and "change". But it is also in keeping with what he has claimed is one of his chief goals as president: to effect a transformation of US politics to the same degree that Reagan did, except in the opposite direction - towards a renewed sense of shared success and public purpose. Such shifts don't just happen; they require persuasion of a consistent kind that Obama, for all his skills as a communicator, has not attempted yet. So much has come so easily to Obama in his career. Now, with his party's congressional majority lost to a hardened opposition, his country's future prosperity in doubt and its self-confidence sapped, he confronts the moment that will define him. For Obama, it is the time to do the big thing.
Alec MacGillis is a staff writer for the Washington Post