WASHINGTON (AP) — Maybe even more than the Republicans, President Barack Obama is looking forward to the GOP picking a candidate to challenge him.
For now and months to come, Obama is an incumbent with no specific rival, a campaigner against various forces but not one in particular.
He is running against a staggering economy. And Congress. And himself — that history-making version of Obama that many voters remember from 2008.
The longer it takes for Republicans to rally around a nominee, the more the election remains a referendum on Obama and jobs. That’s not what the White House and his campaign eagerly want: a clear choice between the president and another candidate who holds starkly different views about how to improve the economy.
With polls showing his approval rating in the low 40s, Obama even contended on Monday that he’s the underdog.
“I don’t mind — I’m used to being an underdog,” the president said in an interview with ABC News. “And I think that at the end of the day, though, what people are going to say is, who’s got a vision for the future that can actually help ordinary families recapture that American dream.”
With no control over when he gets an opponent, Obama is now waging what amounts to a proxy campaign against the eventual Republican nominee.
Every time he presents his jobs bill as a choice between helping the middle class or protecting the ultra-rich, every time he tells Democratic donors that his opponents’ approach to governing “will fundamentally cripple America,” he is previewing a campaign argument that he will apply against whoever his opponent is.
“What the president is saying now compared to what he’s going to be saying in May — I think there’s going to be a great symmetry between the two,” said David Plouffe, an Obama senior adviser in the White House and the manager of Obama’s campaign in 2008.
“We don’t sit around here saying, ‘We wish we had an opponent.’ We know that’s going to come,” Plouffe said. “When that day comes, we’ll be ready for it.”
The Republican electoral calendar is fluid and accelerating, with Florida’s decision to hold a late-January primary likely to prompt other states to move up their voting, too. Still, newly adopted Republican rules on how delegates are awarded will make it harder for any candidate to quickly clinch the nomination.
Republican insiders say their party’s battle could extend into May — meaning Obama would not have a specific challenger for more than seven months.
In the end, Plouffe said he expects Obama will face Texas Gov. Rick Perry or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: “It’s hard to imagine another scenario,” he said.
Obama’s campaign wing is already singling out Perry and Romney by name, saying they support policies the American people oppose. In a memo released Monday, the campaign criticized Perry’s assertion that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme” and said Romney supports turning the program over to Wall Street.
But neither party expects most voters to start really paying attention to the race until it is down to Obama and an opponent.
In the meantime, the absence of someone for Obama to post up against presents him with both troubles and openings.
Running against alleged Republican intransigence in Congress isn’t exactly the kind of vision that voters can see and feel, or that inspires volunteers.
“Right now, understandably, totally legitimate, this is a referendum on Obama and Biden, and the nature of the state of the economy,” Vice President Joe Biden told a South Florida radio station last week. “It’s soon going to be a choice.”
Obama’s strategy is to use the fall and winter to outline a broad vision of how his ideas for the country differ from those of Republicans, and then fill in the details when a competitor emerges.
His themes are already there.
Obama’s policy speeches and his high-dollar fundraisers often center on a need for the wealthy to pay a bigger share to shrink the federal deficit and pay for education, research and the basic infrastructure of the country. He has been talking about opportunity for all and calling anew for a “big, generous vision of what America has been and can be.”
“In this phase, the president can soften the ground, no matter who the candidate is,” said Doug Hattaway, a Democratic strategist. “I see it as an opportunity. He has an opportunity to draw a very clear line between his vision and the Republican ideology, and let the Republican candidates do a hatchet job on each other.”
Karen Finney, a Democratic operative who served in the Clinton White House, said Obama’s effort to contrast what he is trying to do with the way congressional Republicans are standing in the way “reminds people what they like about him, which could also help his poll numbers.”
Most major polls suggest that Obama faces a challenging environment, at best.
The latest Gallup data show Obama’s national approval rating now is below that of all two-term presidents at the same point in their first terms, since Gallup began testing presidential approval regularly during the Eisenhower years. His overall approval rating is at 41 percent in Gallup polling.
Recent polling in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania shows Obama competitive with Romney and Perry, a result that’s open to interpretation.
The White House insists that bodes well for Obama, because he already is carrying the weight of his troubles as the familiar incumbent, while his competitors have not gone through the scrutiny of the primary process or a full media vetting of their views. To Republicans, Obama’s current standing shows a weak incumbent who has blended governing and campaigning into one message.
“I don’t think people believe that he’s running on two tracks right now. He’s running on one track: Total attacks on Republicans,” said Ed Gillespie, a former White House counselor to President George W. Bush and one-time chairman of the Republican National Committee.
For all the debate about whether the election is a referendum on Obama’s leadership or a choice between candidates, Obama himself has leaned in public toward the former.
In an interview with a Kansas City, Mo. television station in July, he was asked who in the Republican field could beat him.
He never answered directly, but said if Americans feel he has been moving the country in the right direction, “I’ll win. If they don’t, I’ll lose.”
“That’s not to say the other candidate is irrelevant,” Obama added. “But it does mean I’ll probably win or lose based on their assessment of my stewardship.”
Associated Press Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and AP Writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.