And – he’s off. Barack Obama has officially announced his re-election bid, after one of Washington’s worst-guarded secrets. In typical tech-savvy style, it was first revealed in emails and text messages to grass-roots supporters, with a short video on barackobama.com – before the neccessary papers were filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Everything was already in place – the 2012 website complete with all-important donation button, the campaign HQ in Chicago . . . and running the whole show is the former White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, unusually ensconced in that high-rise Chicago office some 700 miles from Washington, DC.
David Plouffe, who ran Obama’s victorious campaign three years ago, told the New York Times that Messina’s team was “going to innovate – and make what we did in 2008 seem somewhat prehistoric”. Hard to see what they could do to transform the campaign paradigm this time around, but let’s wait and see.
One thing, of course, hasn’t changed – cold, hard cash: Messina has already been wooing potential donors and Obama has got a series of fundraisers in the diary, all aimed at attracting up to a billion dollars (yes, you read it right) even though he’s extremely unlikely to face any challengers at the primary stage. If he meets that target (and a $30,000-a-head dinner at Harlem’s Red Rooster restaurant plus a New York reception the other week managed to pull in a cool $1.5m), he’ll become the first billion-dollar presidential candidate, at the helm of the most expensive campaign ever.
In contrast to 2008, the bulk of the money will be raised not from the grass roots, but from wealthy backers with deep pockets. Messina has already asked them to bring in at least $350,000 each this year – not exactly small change. But all neccessary to combat the Republicans’ formidable money machine – its own party coffers boosted by groups like American Crossroads, which hauled in millions for the midterms in 2010.
So let’s assume he gets the money: what are the odds for 2012? It’s usually hard to beat an incumbent, and even though Obama’s ratings are hardly stellar, there aren’t exactly any standout stars in the Republican field. Indeed, none of the various runners and riders has yet declared officially.
Reasons to be cheerful?
After months of uncertainty, however, the planned 4 April launch date is feeling like pretty good timing for the White House – the Democrats have been cheered by the latest jobless figures, down to 8.8 per cent, with almost a million and a half jobs created this year.
It all offers some hope that the economy could start rebounding just in time for next November’s poll. Battles over spending cuts and union rights in key states such as Wisconsin have also rallied the Democratic base.
Yet there are considerable hurdles to leap – not least the fight over this year’s federal budget and the threat of a government shutdown, still very much alive. Despite the administration’s best efforts, the flagship health-care reforms are no more popular now than they were a year ago, while the stimulus bill has not yet proved its electoral worth.
Most urgently, Obama is grappling with a series of crises overseas, the military intervention in Libya holding out the prospect of a long-drawn-out commitment by US forces.
So the next 18 months are all about “winning the future” – the Obama slogan that’s meant to transcend talk of hope and change. Once again, the key is energising his core supporters – including those young people who were the heart and soul of the triumph in 2008 – and reaching out to those independents who are wavering over the choice ahead.
The presidential battle is joined. Now it’s up to the Republican hopefuls to put their head above ground and enter the race for real.
Felicity Spector is a deputy programme editor for Channel 4 News.