President Obama likes to say that the American economy is facing headwinds: turmoil in Europe, the Arab spring and the tsunami in Japan. His re-election campaign is facing headwinds too: 9 percent unemployment, a U.S. credit downgrade, and a presidential approval rating slipping toward 40 percent.
Despite those daunting numbers, the president plans to convince Americans that he deserves another four years.
During the 2010 midterm campaign, Obama often told audiences that Republicans drove the economy into a ditch, and now they want the keys to the car back.
"You got to say the same thing to them that you say to your teenager: 'You can't have the keys back because you don't know how to drive yet!' " Obama said.
Today it looks like the car could be on the brink of another ditch, and the president is not talking about the keys anymore.
Still, in Michigan on Thursday, his language was nearly as accusatory as it was then.
"There's some in Congress right now who would rather see their opponents lose than see America win," he says.
During an economic event at a manufacturing plant, the president blamed America's current fiscal problems on the other party without ever saying the word "Republican."
Republican strategist Ed Rogers says going negative is the only way this president can win another term.
"Since it's gonna be hard for Obama to make the case that more of the same is positive, more of the same is desirable, the best thing you can do politically — and it's cynical — is to destroy the alternative," Rogers says.
Polls show that Americans blame congressional Republicans more than they blame Obama for the debt-ceiling crisis. But the president is not running for re-election against Congress.
His potential opponents were on a stage in Iowa Thursday night, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who was conspicuously silent during the debt-ceiling debate.
"We have, unfortunately, as a leader of this country, a man who is out of his depth and who doesn't understand what is needed to do to get this economy going again," Romney said.
In the center of this crossfire are voters like Lazaro Benitez, a 37-year-old New Yorker who works in public relations.
"I'm an independent — not really a party sort of guy — so I'm strictly a moderate, in the middle," he says. "I feel for [Obama]. Not the easiest job in the world, not perfect. I think there's a lot of things that he probably could've handled better, but it's the lesser of two evils."
"Lesser of two evils" hardly reflects the burning passion people felt for Obama in 2008.
Yoram Ezra, 44, says the president is hard to love, in light of everything that's happened over the past two years.
"I think he was naive. ... I never thought he would be able to make the change he promised. I hoped he would be able to make some change. It's difficult," Ezra says.
Both men were passing by a barricade in Lower Manhattan Thursday night. Across the street, the president's motorcade idled outside a private fundraiser where people paid more than $35,000 apiece for dinner with him.
That's one key to any presidential re-election strategy: raise tons of money. With more than $85 million last quarter, the Obama campaign has raised more than all his challengers combined.
That New York event was not open to the media, but a fundraiser in Chicago last week was. The president recognized that he needs to re-energize a base that has become disillusioned with some of the compromises he has made.
"When I said change we can believe in, I didn't say change we can believe in tomorrow," Obama says.
But the central disappointment remains the economy, especially job creation. No president since World War II has been re-elected with unemployment above 8 percent. But New York University professor and former Democratic strategist Bob Shrum says that's based on an extremely small sample.
"Before Ronald Reagan, you would've said, well, you can't get re-elected unless unemployment is no higher than 5.6 percent. Which is what it was when Nixon got re-elected in 1972. And then, Reagan had unemployment, people thought, of 7.4 percent, on the day he carried 49 states," Shrum says.
The Obama campaign defied history in 2008, but he'll need to do it again in 2012.