Obamaworld 2012

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Photograph by Brian Ulrich for TIME

Large sections of Obama's vast re-election headquarters in Chicago remain unfurnished and unstaffed

As big as a football field and nearly as empty, Barack Obama's re-election headquarters looks like a start-up gone wrong. Wires sprout like weeds from the carpeting, legions of bookshelves stand empty, and the swing-state maps hastily pinned to the wall are freebies from the AAA auto club down the street. In one room that could fit hundreds of people, just a few dozen sit at long desks. Most don't look old enough to buy a beer.

But if you want to find out why the President has set up shop in a Chicago skyscraper 18 months before Election Day, you need only peek into the office of Jeremy Bird, 32, the campaign's field director, at the far end of the room. He pulls a name from a database on his laptop, picks up his phone and dials in the hope of reminding one more person of the 2008 magic. "I just wanted to call, and first I wanted to thank you," Bird says when a volunteer from Obama's first presidential campaign answers in North Carolina. The computer screen notes that this guy hasn't done much in recent years, so Bird asks for his thoughts about 2012. "You are listed as a superstar 2008 volunteer," Bird continues. "What do we need to do to get you back involved?"

In Obamaworld parlance, this is a "one-on-one," a cold call that aides hope will form the foundation for next year's re-election effort. This summer, the Obama campaign expects to arrange hundreds of thousands of these individual contacts, over the phone or in person, with just about everyone who gave his or her time back when Obama was an upstart outsider three years ago. To accomplish the massive task, the campaign is launching a replay of a program started in 2008 called Summer Organizers, in which more than 1,500 volunteers have committed to work 20- or 40-hour weeks through the summer. In the first week of June, the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee will hold 42 two-day training sessions in 40 states.

The goal is to reactivate old donors, door knockers and phone bankers with individual attention. "It definitely differs from past campaigns, because usually they will just call people and say, Can you come in and do phone calls?" says Bird, who, like other senior staff, has been making calls himself. "We are taking the time now so that these folks know: You are not just a cog in the wheel. You're a volunteer we respect and admire."

The campaign's larger strategy is to capitalize on its 2011 head start. Obama is an incumbent with no primary challenger, while Republicans are still fretting about when and whether to get into the race. No one in Chicago expects a cakewalk in 2012, not after two years of political battering. But they also know an opportunity when they see one. "I can't tell you what a gift, if we use it properly, this year is," says David Plouffe, Obama's 2008 campaign manager. "If we don't, shame on us."

A New Political Landscape
From the inside, Obama 2012 looks and feels much as Obama 2008 did, with a familiar cast of characters in similar roles. In fact, all of the people who have been hired so far into the inner circle have been there before. Jim Messina, who served as the '08 campaign's chief of staff before a turn at the White House, is campaign manager. David Axelrod, the message guru, will reprise his role. After fizzled talks about a high-profile job with Facebook, senior White House aide Robert Gibbs is expected back as well. The field leadership, led by Bird and Mitch Stewart, Obama's 2008 Iowa organizer, remains unchanged. At the White House, a coterie of old campaign hands, including Plouffe, Stephanie Cutter and Dan Pfeiffer, keep in close touch with Chicago. President Obama, meanwhile, plays a chairman-of-the-board role, receiving regular progress briefings and speaking intermittently with Messina and Axelrod.

But Obama 2012 opens its doors on a landscape that barely resembles that of the good old days. The campaign that made "Change you can believe in" a national slogan must now present a more complicated, and less emotionally stirring, case for continuity. "It was a fundamentally different position as a challenger, though the vision remains fundamentally the same," says Axelrod. "Our mission is to tell that story about where we are going and to make sure people understand that there is a consistent thread here and that they are in the center of all of this." That message, framed as "Winning the future" by the White House, will likely revisit 2008 themes about rebuilding the American Dream and restoring the American economy for the middle class.

Axelrod and company hope to recapture the energy of 2008, when Obama's organizing vision stirred the Democratic base and people who had never cared about politics found themselves inviting strangers into their homes to organize precinct walks. But it will be harder this time. There's no George W. Bush to kick around anymore. The Great Recession drove the unemployment rate above 10%, and the 2009 fight over health care swung the enthusiasm pendulum to the Republicans, making the Tea Party the nation's most talked-about people-powered movement. Many of the folks who turned the 2008 Obama dream into a reality — young voters, minorities and volunteers — haven't been heard from in recent years.

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