WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama declared himself a candidate for re-election in 2012 on Monday, jumping ahead of a slow-starting Republican field and hoping an economic recovery will boost his case for a new term.
Obama’s announcement, made through an email and video sent to supporters, set in motion a plan to tap donors and raise as much as $1 billion, which would shatter the $750 million campaign finance record he set in 2008.
Five months after his Democrats were routed by Republicans in November congressional elections, Obama looks in fairly good shape for re-election when paired against any of a group of potential Republican challengers.
It is early yet. The economic recovery has picked up pace in recent weeks but could be slowed by rising gasoline prices or any number of unpredictable events in the next 18 months, such as an unexpected expansion of the Libya conflict.
The stubbornly high jobless rate was the leading factor in Republican victories last November and Americans weigh the state of their pocketbooks far more than anything else when they vote. The jobless rate has dropped a full percentage point to 8.8 percent in the last five months.
“If the economy does chug along the way it is now a lot of people may be more comfortable going with Obama,” said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri.
Obama urged supporters in a phone call on Monday evening to work to preserve his administration’s policy initiatives, and he promised to work on issues such as energy and immigration reform over the next year.
“We can’t go backwards,” he said. “We have to preserve the progress that we’ve made and take it to the next level, and that means that we’re going to have to mobilize.”
Obama became the first black U.S. president in 2009, and scored big legislative victories when Congress approved reforms of healthcare and financial regulation laws last year. But the economy has been slow to recover from recession despite a stimulus package of more than $800 billion.
Obama’s path to re-election will depend greatly on how he fares with independent voters, who were crucial to his 2008 victory but who abandoned Democrats last November.
The president has adopted a more centrist tone in recent months in response to that midterm election loss, emphasizing his desire to work with both Democrats and Republicans.
While the president is publicly trying to distance himself from politicking, his every move now will be viewed through a re-election prism, such as two trips he is taking this week to states that he won in 2008 and will need in 2012: Pennsylvania and Indiana.
Obama said in an email to supporters that he was filing papers to start his re-election bid in a formal way.
“So even though I’m focused on the job you elected me to do, and the race may not reach full speed for a year or more, the work of laying the foundation for our campaign must start today,” he said in the email.
He has been sounding the themes of his campaign in fund-raising speeches, telling Democratic loyalists, “the promise that we made to the American people has been kept. But we aren’t finished. We’ve got more work to do.”
Republicans acknowledge it will be a difficult task to defeat an incumbent Democratic president. Only two incumbents have been defeated in the last 30 years — Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Republican George H.W. Bush in 1992.
“Obama’s the favorite, but 18 months in advance, you’d be foolish to call anybody a lock,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.
Several Republicans are willing to try, including former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, both of whom are planning campaigns.
Reacting to Obama’s announcement, Pawlenty released a 35-second video of his own highlighting high unemployment, weakness in the housing market and surging federal debt.
“How can America win the future, when we’re losing the present?” Pawlenty asks in the video. “In order for America to take a new direction, it’s going to take a new president.”
The Republican field is off to a slow start as potential candidates work quietly to build networks of donors and supporters and visit early voting states. By holding off on campaign announcements, they are saving money that will be needed in the months ahead.
Early polls show Obama leading potential Republican rivals. The first scheduled debate of the Republican nominating race was postponed last week from May until September because of a lack of candidates.
Events taking place now in Washington may play a role in the campaign battle to come. Republicans elected on pledges to cut government spending are attempting significant reductions that Democrats oppose.
If the two parties cannot find common ground, it could force a government shutdown that the White House says could hurt the nascent economic recovery.
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Eric Beech