Imagine, it's 2012. Unemployment is above 8 percent. The deficit is once again above $1 trillion. Troops are still in Afghanistan. And the post-debate over the health care law drags on, only its most popular provisions have not yet gone into effect.
For President Obama, it's a tough room to play. But that could easily be the environment he runs in to seek a second term. There's a reason so many top advisers are fleeing the White House for Chicago to start brainstorming their 2012 strategy -- they have to figure out a way, and soon, to make his controversial accomplishments palatable and re-establish trust with both moderates and the Democratic base.
Coming off his State of the Union address, the president has plenty of themes and achievements on which to run. But they all have strings attached.
"Right now I think he's in survival mode," said Brad Blakeman, a past adviser to former President George W. Bush.
Strategists say the president started to delicately craft his message Tuesday night, using his address to the nation to accentuate the positives, make a few gestures to the center and offer an upbeat vision for the future. They say he'll make the economy an inevitable cornerstone of his 2012 campaign. But how he does it, and how effective that will be, much depends on the course of the next two years -- especially since the "stimulus" of the last two years has become somewhat of a dirty word among Democrats.
"I think it's going to be contingent probably on the state of the economy," said David Lewis, political science professor at Vanderbilt University. "If the economy turns around, then his record looks a lot different, and it'll be easier to pin his re-election on his stewardship."
Otherwise, Lewis said, the president harkens back to talking about infrastructure and energy investments, while highlighting broadly popular items like government reform and, if he gets to it, the kind of tax code simplification he addressed in the State of the Union.
That could be a less compelling sell, but one his team may already be contemplating.
Congressional Budget Office projections released this week showed unemployment hovering above 8 percent on Election Day. White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley argued with aides before the State of the Union that Obama can't do much to significantly change that rate, a Democratic source told Fox News. Rather, Daley said, according to the source, that the president should adopt a more business-friendly, forward-looking tone, focusing on the value of innovation in the private sector with a helping hand from the government.
Obama may try to preserve that tone in honing his campaign's economic message.
"It's not going to be the full-out hope of 2008," said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, an assistant political science professor at Northwestern University. But she said the message will probably be focused on "light at the end of the tunnel." She said if the economy improves, Obama will be "riding that wave hard and fast." If it doesn't, he's back to talking about how he kept things from getting worse than they are, "which is a tough one."
However, the economic component that drove Tea Party voters to the polls in November -- concern about the national debt -- has proved tough for the president to tackle. CBO pegged this year's deficit at $1.5 trillion, thanks in part to the tax-cut package pushed by Republicans and agreed-to by Obama, and warned that national debt could reach 100 percent of GDP by the end of the decade. Obama this week called for freezing some discretionary spending for five years, a proposal projected to save $400 billion over 10 years. But Republicans want to see savings in the trillions, noting that $400 billion doesn't begin to whittle away at the $14 trillion national debt.
Though Obama's fiscal commission was unable to force a floor vote last year on its recommendations to Congress, Democratic strategist Peter Fenn said Obama will probably build his fiscal message in the months ahead by picking and choosing some of those recommendations to promote -- sending a message that he's serious about the deficit.
Fenn also argued that Obama already has more economic accomplishments under his belt than some give him credit for.
"The economy isn't in freefall, it's coming back," he said, adding: "All the talk about how horrendous it was to put money into the car companies -- we saved America's manufacturing base. They're turning a profit."
And then there's health care. As Obama quipped Tuesday night, "I have heard rumors that a few of you still have concerns about our new health care law."
As a campaign issue, it will be unavoidable. Many Republicans want to repeal it, stirring a largely symbolic debate on Capitol Hill that's poised to fuel the political debate during the GOP primaries.
"This isn't going away," said Blakeman, noting that state attorneys general across the country continue to litigate it while Congress debates it.
Blakeman said Obama can try to get the upper hand in the debate by warning that, despite the flaws in the law, a Republican president in 2013 would help Republicans in Congress realize their dream of nullifying it. That jeopardizes provisions like guaranteed insurance coverage and a ban on benefits caps.
But as the town hall frenzy of late 2009 demonstrated, the health care law can be a doozy to defend and to explain. A Fox News poll released last week showed 56 percent of voters want the law repealed, compared with 39 percent who want it kept in place.
As with any campaign, several other issues are bound to creep in. Obama signaled in his State of the Union address that a push for government investment in clean-energy technology will be a priority in the second half of this term. And with public uprisings against entrenched regimes fueling a tenser-than-usual environment in the Middle East, foreign policy could emerge as a wild-card factor next year.
Plus there's the threat of $5-a-gallon gas.
If nothing else, Obama will have the option of going negative, running against the GOP nominee and warning about the monopoly Republicans could once again have on Washington if his opponent prevails.
DeFrancesco Soto said he'll surely play off the divisions that emerge during the primary, a process he'll be spared from barring an insurgent challenge from within.
But Obama's not an outsider anymore. Blakeman warned that any incumbent president has to defend his record.
"He's not going to have the luxury of having anybody to blame in 2012," Blakeman said.