ABC News online

By John Barron

The extraordinary marathon that is the modern US presidential election process is getting underway once again, as Barack Obama seeks a second term in the White House and a field of Republican candidates try to be the one that stops him. At stake, the most powerful political office on Earth, and like last time, the world will be watching.

But much has changed since 2008, and not exactly the change Obama promised. Worryingly for Democrats, Obama's approval rating - which began at near 70 per cent - sank below 50 per cent faster than any president in more than a quarter of a century. And for all the positive, unifying themes of his candidacy, Obama is the most polarising president ever; gaining the approval of less than a quarter of Republicans by the end of his first year in office. His increasingly vocal opponents, notably the Tea Party Movement, the religious right and the conservative media are increasingly hopeful 2012 will be the year Obama becomes a one-term president - "another Carter".

It is a comparison that was already being made when freshman senator Barack Obama began his "improbable journey" to the White House in early 2007, and political shorthand for too-liberal and ineffectual. But while the Carter-comparison may have been rhetorical and rather premature back then, after almost two years in the Oval Office, it is being made now with greater justification.

There are some undeniable parallels. Like Carter, Obama's long-shot campaign to win his party's nomination owed a great deal to a strong grassroots effort in Iowa - influential because it's the first state to vote in any presidential election year. In 1975 and early 1976, governor Carter campaigned across the 99 counties of this crucial mid-western state - riding a bicycle from farm to farm over the flat corn country that stretches from Nebraska to Illinois. Similarly, Obama campaigned heavily in Iowa in 2007, and his victory in the Iowa Democratic Party Caucuses of January 2008 was the key to beating the frontrunner Hillary Clinton to the presidential nomination.

According to Carter's presidential speechwriter and Atlantic Monthly journalist James Fallows, there are strong similarities between the presidential campaigns of Carter '76 and Obama '08. "Each was elected mainly on the strength of his personal story - that his personal goodness, his personal wisdom, his personal integrity was what the country needed for the next phase of its existence."

Both Carter and Obama were relatively inexperienced and their elections were seen as transformative and historic - Obama the first African-American president, Carter the first southerner to win the White House since the Civil War. But by 1980, Carter - the toothy, religious, former peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia - seemed incapable of fixing America's post-Vietnam malaise and major crises such as the taking of 66 American hostages at the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the following month. After an unsuccessful but damaging challenge for the Democratic presidential nomination by senator Edward Kennedy, Carter proved to be no match for former California governor Ronald Reagan in November 1980.

And as the 2012 Presidential campaign season opens, Obama's struggle to prop up the American economy in the face of the global financial crisis, the drawn-out battle to get watered-down healthcare legislation passed, the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan and the echoes of Hurricane Katrina as crude oil was disgorged into the Gulf of Mexico, could conceivably doom this son of a Kansan mother and Kenyan father to a Carter-like single term.

I returned to Iowa recently for the first time since November 2008, and spoke to supporters and opponents of the president to get a feel for the political landscape heading towards 2012. Just as Iowa was the state where it all began for Carter and Obama, it will be an important battleground for Republican presidential candidates over the next year as well. The challenge for each of them will be to attract enough support among the activist base of their party and prove their conservative credentials to the right-wing media, without alienating the wider electorate and scaring away the moderates and independents who often decide presidential elections.

Iowa's Newsradio WHO 1040 AM in the capital Des Moines is the station which gave a job to a young sports reporter named "Dutch" Reagan in the early 1930s - "Dutch" later reverted to his first name Ronald, made some movies and went into politics. In a different way, WHO is still auditioning potential future presidents. In the 2008 campaign, WHO Drivetime host Steve Deace gave a huge amount of positive exposure to Republican presidential candidate and fellow evangelical Christian governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, letting him take calls on the afternoon show for up to two hours at a time. Meanwhile Deace's colleague, morning show host Jan Mickelson, highlighted the "liberal record" of Huckabee's main rival in Iowa, the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who in a testy interview grew angry when Mickelson repeatedly questioned him about his Mormon faith. Romney lost the state, despite spending $US25 million more than Huckabee on his campaign. "He came within a hairs breadth of winning Iowa," Mickelson tells me, "[but] he revealed what he truly is, and that's just a hustler."

Ironically, by boosting Huckabee and pegging back Romney, the Iowa result in 2008 helped clear the path for John McCain to become the Republican presidential candidate - and neither Deace nor Mickelson thought he was nearly conservative enough. Now, Steve Deace says, many evangelical Christians have become disenchanted with both the major parties in America. "There is only one political party in America that hates Christians more than Democrats do and that's the Republicans - the Democrats just disagree with us, the Republicans get upset if they don't get to use us." The answer, according to Deace, and thousands more, is the Tea Party Movement.

The Tea Party emerged from disparate elements on the libertarian and Christian right of American politics who are passionately opposed to big government and higher levels of taxation. Their name and inspiration coming from the revolutionary tossing of British tea into Boston harbour in 1773, the modern day Tea Party's major qualm with the Obama administration has been the level of federal government spending on health reform and the bailouts of the banks and the auto industry. While not a political party as such, the Tea Party has succeeded in influencing the selection of Republican Party candidates by giving support to those they see as being more conservative.

Ryan Rhodes is the state chairman of the Tea Party in Iowa, although as a 20-something former college student-turned political operative he more closely fits the demographic profile of an Obama supporter. He sums up the philosophy of the movement this way; "If you believe in limited government and do not believe in the unconstitutional takeovers that we are having then I believe that makes you a Tea-Partier."

If Barack Obama is to become another one-term president like Jimmy Carter - held responsible as much for the problems left behind by his predecessors as those that emerged on his watch - it follows that the Republicans will need another Ronald Reagan to bring "Morning in America" again. And we can expect the Republican presidential nomination contest over the next year and a half to be something of a rolling audition to see who gets to play the part of The Gipper Redux.

But with names including Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich being talked about as potential candidates, Reagan's former chief domestic policy adviser Gary Bauer says there's no obvious candidate to unite and lead the Republican Party; "I don't think that there's any consensus that there's a Ronald Reagan on the horizon for 2012. There are a number of candidates that have caught the imagination of conservative voters but nobody who seems as formidable as Reagan." And Bauer, who is a pro-life Christian, also suggests that if Mitt Romney runs for the presidency again, his Mormonism could put off enough evangelicals to lose a close election, just as it did in Iowa in 2008.

The Iowa Tea Party's Ryan Rhodes says in the next election he won't support Romney, Huckabee or any of the candidates who contested the 2008 election, with the possible exception of Palin. "She has taken a lot of flack, the Obama-Liberal side has just gone after her so hard and she's still standing and that says something about her character." Rhodes says Palin would attract a lot of Tea Party supporters, but personally he would also like to see conservative representative Mike Pence of Indiana and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal in the race.

Barack Obama's success in 2008, from the very first vote in the Iowa Democratic Caucuses on January 3, through to the general election win against John McCain 10 months later, was made possible by the remarkable ability of his candidacy and his campaign staff to motivate voters. Cheryl Fasano, a middle-aged Des Moines resident, tells me that she had never really been involved with politics before, and like many Americans she first became aware of Obama with his 2004 Democratic Convention speech. Then in early 2007 she was asked to get involved in his fledgling campaign. "I got a call from Obama's office in Des Moines inviting me to a meeting, and it was all young people on staff - they were so enthused and so believed in Barack that it was infectious." She says she saw Obama speak in person in Iowa a month later and decided to volunteer for his campaign - it became a full-time occupation for the next year and a half.

According to conservative commentator Gary Bauer, who ran for the presidency himself in 2000, the Tea Party is now showing the same ability to mobilise and inspire its supporters. "I've spoken at a number of rallies, and almost all of them inevitably say they have never been involved with politics - they have seldom voted in the past - and so I think this is a new force in conservative politics [which] will make it more difficult for president Obama to get re-elected in 2012."

In 2008, from the average of 45 per cent of adults who don't vote in America's non-compulsory system, and those who had only just reached voting age, an unprecedented 15 million people entered the political process for the first time by registering and casting their ballot for Barack Obama. Those first-time voters made the difference - Obama won by less than 10 million votes. Just as decisively, the Obama campaign built a database of more than 3 million online donors who contributed more than half a billion dollars between them, averaging about $US80 each.

As for this next US presidential election, if history is any guide, it is worth remembering that midway through his first term, Ronald Reagan himself, with an approval rating of just 35 per cent, looked like he could become "another Carter" yet was returned in a landslide. And Bill Clinton, who led the Democrats to even greater losses in the midterms of 1994 following the failure of his healthcare reforms, trounced Republican senator Bob Dole in the presidential contest of 1996.

For Obama and for America, change has not come quickly or easily. The economy remains sluggish at best, unemployment is still near 10 per cent and home prices are in the doldrums. The promised benefits of health care and Wall Street reform are months or years away. But what will matter most in 2012 is whether the change in the electorate Obama achieved in 2008 is lasting - will the millions that supported the very idea of him in 2008 still support the reality; and can he turn those millions of first-time voters into second-time voters in 2012?

Obama supporters like Cheryl Fasano have no doubt about that. "I really see the momentum picking back up now, and every time he's been back in Iowa everyone still wants to see him - just to see him and hear him is so motivating." And Kevin Geiken, who is the Iowa state director of the Obama campaign's Organising for America, is sounding pretty confident as well. "We are bracing for it to be difficult, but that's also where our comfort zone is ... we're prepared for a challenge, we're ready for it, we're excited and I have no doubt that we'll be successful."