CHICAGO — A year before he faces the voters, President Barack Obama isn't waiting for the Republicans to pick their candidate before he starts campaigning.
His sprawling headquarters in Chicago bustles with activity, as a horde of twentysomethings work on building a state-by-state machine they hope will carry him to victory. Nearby, in an office hard along rail tracks, top adviser David Axelrod crafts the message and grand strategy. And across the country, the president grabs the bully pulpit or woos contributors who've already forked over nearly $90 million to bankroll what almost certainly will be the most expensive campaign in history.
Spin or not, they say they're confident they can eke out a win in one of the toughest political environments in modern history. If so, Obama would join the likes of George W. Bush and Woodrow Wilson as presidents who narrowly won second terms. If not, he'd join Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush in history's ash bin of one-term presidents.
It could go either way.
Republicans are very confident. "The cake is baked" already for Obama's defeat, says Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., a long-shot candidate for the GOP presidential nomination.
It's easy to see why they think that.
Unemployment is stuck at 9 percent — higher than when Obama took office. Since World War II, four presidents have sought re-election with jobless rates above 7 percent. One, Ronald Reagan, won a second term. Three — Gerald Ford, Carter and the elder Bush — were defeated. All had lower jobless rates than Obama does.
"No doubt people are really struggling in this economy. And there also is no doubt that the Republican candidates ... are counting on that to win the election," Axelrod said in the conference room of his Chicago office, where the walls are covered with presidential memorabilia dating to George Washington.
"The central debate here in 2012 is how do we build an economy in which hard work is rewarded, in which responsibility is rewarded, in which everyone is accountable and in which people can get ahead?" he said.
He said Obama would draw a sharp contrast with Republicans who wanted to "keep taxes low for people at the top ... roll back the rules on Wall Street ... cut back on education and innovation and infrastructure and everything will work out.
"That's a debate we are very well fortified for. It's a good debate for us."
Indeed, the campaign already is doing opposition research on potential rivals, and firing off several shots a day. Most are aimed at former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.
On the sixth floor of the towering Prudential building, once Chicago's tallest, members of the Obama campaign team enter past a simple sign with the inspiration of the day: "Respect. Empower. Include. Win."
They sit at long rows of desks, grouped by region and marked by flags and banners such as one from the University of Wisconsin. Each regional team includes people talking to local news media, setting up grass-roots organizations, working with social media.
"We're spending 500 days ensuring that we can play on the widest possible playing field," said campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt, who's moved back to his hometown from Washington, where he worked in the White House press office.
Basing the campaign in Chicago, he said, keeps workers focused on the task at hand rather than the winds of Washington gossip.
Despite their confidence, no one inside the Obama campaign envisions a repeat of his victory in 2008, when he won 53 percent of the popular vote and became the first Democrat to take a majority of it since Jimmy Carter eked out 50.1 percent in 1976.
"I think it's going to be a very close election," Axelrod said. "Forty-seven percent voted against us last time ... and that was under optimal circumstances. These are not optimal circumstances. And so I see an even closer race."
Calling the economy "less than optimal" is an understatement, according to independent analysts.
"He had everything going for him four years ago and he won 53 percent," said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in New York. "If you start at 53 with everything he had going for him, and add in all of the elements of the current situation, how far does that pull him down?"
Miringoff noted that the three main measures of an incumbent's political health — public measures of his job approval rating, the country's direction and his handling of the economy — are all poor.
"If Republicans had a top-tier opponent, a proven campaigner who could energize his own base and appeal to swing voters, the president would be in serious trouble," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent analyst and the editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, a newsletter.
"The Republicans don't have that, so the president is only in trouble. But he is in trouble."
If the 2012 election is as close as Obama's team expects, the result will depend on which side best turns out its base of voters next Nov. 6.
In 2008, Obama did the better job of energizing young people, women and minorities. Independents swung with them. In the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans had the energy — and independents swung to the right.
"They may not get young people and African-Americans as energized as 2008," Rothenberg said. "They have to expect he'll have a hard time among independents, swing voters and among downscale-white voters who were voting for change last time."
"His really big uphill battle is with the working class," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "They can't see that he's made their lives any better."
Also, Obama might not find young people as captivated by social media as they were in 2008.
"It's going to be very difficult to use the same get-out-the-vote techniques that worked so effectively in'08," MacManus said. "Among students and younger voters, social media's not new to them anymore."
However, there's more to an incumbent's campaign than Facebook and Twitter. In recent weeks, Obama has rolled out a series of proposals and policies that _by design or not — could help energize at least parts of his base. He announced the complete withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, which is likely to please anti-war liberals. He's been pushing aggressively for Congress to enact a big jobs package, and attacking Republicans for blocking it. And he allowed gays and lesbians to begin serving openly in the U.S. military.
Said MacManus: "He's really starting to punch the tickets for a lot of his base."
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