When President Obama swoops into Chicago on Air Force One to formally launch his reelection bid Thursday, his homecoming will have all the trappings of a celebrity event: high-dollar fundraisers at a pair of fancy restaurants, an adoring audience at a waterfront rally and an appearance by NBA star Derrick Rose.
But one of the president's biggest advantages as he seeks a second term will not be visible: the absence of any serious primary opposition. Incumbents forced to fend off a challenge within their own party tend to lose the November election (like Gerald R. Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992) or choose not to run at all (like Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968).
Spared fratricidal fighting, Obama is free to move toward the political center and target the independent voters crucial to victory. Meantime, his Republican rivals must move right to win their party's nomination, then hope to scamper back toward the center in time for the fall campaign.
Obama's course was vividly demonstrated Wednesday, with his embrace of a $4-trillion deficit-reduction package that calls for tax hikes and benefit cuts. The plan not only allowed the president to embrace an issue that many centrist voters say they care about, but also afforded him an opportunity to paint his Republican opponents as extreme.
"Our leaders came together three times during the 1990s to reduce our nation's deficit," he said in a speech at George Washington University, invoking the names of past presidents and congressional leaders, Democratic and Republican, who forged compromise. "All three agreements asked for shared responsibility and shared sacrifice."
The president's ability to stake out the center this far ahead of election day offers a considerable edge. It is there, and not the fringes, that most presidential campaigns are won.
"From an ideological perspective, it's a huge advantage to spend two years working the middle of the electorate," said Don Sipple, a strategist for Republican Bob Dole in 1996, the last time a Democratic president sought reelection. "While the president repositions … the Republicans are moving out of position as far as the task they'll face in the general election."
None of that suggests Obama's reelection will be easy, or anything close to preordained. His approval ratings nationally are in the mediocre 50% range. Democrats suffered midterm setbacks in several states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Iowa, that Obama almost certainly needs to win in 2012. Joblessness remains high and, worse, economic anxiety is widespread.
He also faces anger on the left, which has built steadily over the last two years and flared in recent days after the president abandoned his pledge to close the federal detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and embraced deep spending cuts as part of a deal with Republicans to avert a government shutdown.
But no one of any real stature has stepped forward to challenge Obama's renomination, and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, his friend and fellow Illinois Democrat, seemed to speak for many on the left when he suggested that the prospect of a Republican president enacting laws passed by a Republican Congress was enough to put down any serious rebellion.
"Certainly, when you look at Paul Ryan's budget, that's not where they're going to go," Durbin said of the plan by the Wisconsin Republican, chairman of the House Budget Committee, to privatize the Medicare program that provides health coverage for older Americans.
The president's political strategists reject the notion of any calculated move to the middle, pointing out, for instance, Obama's stated support for deficit reduction during the 2008 campaign. In the interim, they say, he was forced to take dramatic steps — the $800-billion stimulus bill being the most conspicuous — to address the economic crisis he inherited.
"The notion that somehow he has shifted his thinking is belied by the things he said throughout the campaign," said David Axelrod, one of the president's chief political advisors. "That's what he said then. That's what he believes now."
But politics hardly takes place in a void, and it is notable that fiscal discipline — and its close cousin, deficit reduction — have long been a major concern of the political center. A solid majority of those voters backed Obama in 2008, but they went heavily Republican two years later, concerned about stimulus spending and the national healthcare bill the president and congressional Democrats pushed into law.
"After the fiscal crisis, the public was scolded for irresponsible spending and maxing out on their credit cards," said Sipple, who is neutral in the Republican presidential primary. "So they pulled in their belts and tried to reduce their debt, then watched as the government piled up more debt through profligate spending."
Independent voters stand apart from the faithful of both parties in another significant way: They abhor the ways of Washington, especially the polarization and partisanship that has come to surround all but the most routine business inside the Beltway.
"Independents don't see Democrats as socialists and Republicans as corporate ogres," said Matthew Dowd, who ran President Bush's 2004 presidential campaign and is unaligned this year. "They don't believe that principle trumps process.... They get along with their neighbors, have them over for dinner, sit around the table and, while they may disagree, they don't scream at each other."
They wonder, Dowd added, why Washington can't function the same way.
Lately, Obama has struck the same tone. Although his intervention was required to close the budget deal with Republicans and avert a government shutdown, Obama often positioned himself as standing astride both parties, as though he were not the nation's Democrat in chief.
He took a similar tack on Wednesday, even as he assailed Ryan's proposal and suggested his own deficit plan presented the more reasonable and compassionate course. Acknowledging that many believe Washington is broken, that decisions are too hard and the parties too far apart to take consequential action on the deficit — and even confessing some sympathy for that view — Obama nevertheless said it was possible and necessary to act.
"It isn't a Democratic or Republican idea," Obama said. "It's patriotism."