The Canberra Times

By Judith Ireland

With Washington DC distracted by a budget stalemate of epic proportions, this week Barack Obama sent a simple message to his supporters: ''Are you in?'' At the crack of 5am on the fourth day of the fourth month, the 44th President of the United States launched his bid for a second term. A tweet and an email led supporters to a video on the website, ''Obama for America''. ''It begins with us'', says the clip, which features regular, everyday Americans who believe Obama should be re- elected. As with 2007, the overall tone blends big ideas with purposeful, grassroots camaraderie. ''We're doing this now because the politics we believe in does not start with expensive TV ads or extravaganzas, but with you with people organizing block-by-block, talking to neighbors, co-workers, and friends. And that kind of campaign takes time to build,'' Obama said in his email to supporters.

If Obama's run seems painfully early, given the election is not until November next year, in recent history he's only slightly ahead of the field. In 1995, Bill Clinton launched his bid for a second term on April 14. In 2003, George W. Bush lasted all the way to May 16. And of course, there's money to be made. Lodging his papers with the Federal Electoral Commission allows Obama to begin fund-raising. With a reported target of $US1billion, he's set to blitz his 2008 campaign fund-raising record of $US750million. In going back to the grassroots, the 2012 campaign seeks to recapture the extraordinary buzz of 2007 and 2008, when millions of Americans signed up under the banners of ''Change We Can Believe In'' and ''Yes We Can'', buoyed by the newfound power of social networking and the promise of making history.

But three years on, Obama is no longer the zeitgeist's zeitgeist portrayed in Shepard Fairey's iconic stencil portraits the realities of leading the free world have seen to that. Will a social-media-plus-big- ideas approach work, second time around? For one thing, the blog posts, tweets and clips won't seem as fresh and fantastic. Associate Professor Brendon O'Connor, of the US Studies Centre at Sydney University, notes that social media use, particularly in the early, fund-raising stages of a campaign, is now de rigueur. ''That's just become the medium,'' he says. ''It's a bit like saying, 'Why do people use roads and footpaths to get to work, rather than crossing the field?''' For another, it will be harder for voters to suspend disbelief that Obama's promised change, hope and progress will come to fruition. ''It is hard to believe there will be anything like the enthusiasm we saw in 2008 for Obama,'' O'Connor says.

While Obama hasn't necessarily made a hash of his presidency he has essentially delivered on promises of health reform and withdrawal from Iraq the first two years have been plagued by economic woes, a mid-term ''shellacking'' and a dive in approval ratings. Just this week, the US Justice Department announced that alleged 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be tried by a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay (despite Obama's pledge to shut the facility down), as Republicans and Democrats waged a protracted war over the federal budget.

It is difficult to reconcile the new politics Obama wanted for Washington decision-making with the ugliness that has characterised Capitol Hill since his inauguration. In this respect, O'Connor suggests Obama is a victim of his own high standards. ''When you promise as much as Obama did and talk in such epoch- changing language, it's hard not to feel the Government has been a let- down.'' Another major departure from 2007 is the lack of Obama-drama. With no Hillary Clinton to fend off and as yet, no Republican challenger, it will be hard for supporters to work up the same fever pitch of excitement. It is also doubtful that regular, everyday Americans, knee-deep in financial pressures, will be as keen to put their hands in their pockets again.

Many may also be confused by the disconnect between Obama's outsider, ''I'm not politics-as-usual'' claims, and his astronomical $1billion asking price. Some supporters are already disillusioned by the fact that the momentum of '08 didn't continue into the presidency. In an op-ed in The Washington Post last December, the former campaign blogger for Obama, Sam Graham-Felsen, criticised his former boss for squandering his email list of 13million supporters, particularly when it came to critical tax and health-care reforms. ''Obama has made it clear that, for the most part, his administration isn't seriously interested in deploying this massive grassroots list which was once heralded as a force that could reshape politics as we know it to fight for sweeping legislative change'', Graham-Felsen wrote.

Yet, despite the lumps and bumps, Obama still stands a fighting chance of a second term. As Dr Michael Fullilove, director of the Global Issues program at the Lowy Institute notes, Obama enjoys the advantages of a ''presidential aura'' and the ''ability to control events''. History favours the incumbent and the famed political skills that got him to the White House in the first place are still on tap. Importantly, while the Republican line-up is interesting, so far, it's not particularly threatening. ''Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney both missed out last time for a reason [and] Sarah Palin's not up to the rigours of a presidential race,'' Fullilove says. The cast of fringe characters assembling as potential Republican nominees such as Tea Party supporter Michele Bachmann and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour will only serve Obama's cause by driving the Republican side further to the right. O'Connor agrees that compared with 2007, the Republicans are behind the pace. ''There is a lot of holding off and wait-and-see politics.'' Indeed, so far, only former Minnesota governor Tim ''T-Paw''

Pawlenty has officially announced his intention to run. Obama may have launched his campaign, but so far, it's a phony war. The Republicans are also in an inconvenient strategic situation. The November 2010 mid-term elections, which saw them reclaim the majority in the House of Representatives, mean they now ''own'' part of the problems Obama is trying to solve, Fullilove points out. It will be almost impossible for a Republican candidate to run on a pure ''change'' platform. For those eager to place a bet, O'Connor cautions against ''over- prediction''. If the last presidential race is any indication, there will be many twists and turns before polling day on November 6, 2012. ''This will be a long game,'' he says. But as Americans stare down a likely government shutdown over the congressional budget impasse in the US, Obama can take heart. The last time a US government lost the authority to spend money was 1995. Following that, Clinton received a boost in the polls, going on to claim a second term in 1996.