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Barack Obama, the blurry president

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When Barack Obama swept to the presidency in 2008, he was whatever you wanted him to be.

President Barack Obama waves as he boards Air Force One at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011, as he travels to Canberra, Australia. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Democrats saw him as the next great liberal hero. Independents regarded him as the man who could bring comity back to Washington. And many Republicans saw him a historical figure of major proportions.

Obama’s twin slogans of “hope” and “change” allowed partisans of varying stripes to convince themselves that he was the person they — and the country — had long been waiting for.

On the verge of his 2012 reelection race, however, Obama’s continued lack of clear definition is hurting his political prospects, according to longtime Democratic pollster Peter Hart.

“This president does not emerge with a central image or core set of values to the voters,” writes Hart in a memo based off of results from the most recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll and focus groups he conducted for the Annenberg Center for Public Policy.

(Hart also notes in the memo that the Republican field has yet to coalesce and that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is “the remainder man candidate -- acceptable as an alternative but not the real first choice of many GOP voters.”)

Hart notes that the core of most recent presidents could be summed in a few words; “strength and optimism” for Ronald Reagan, “compassion and determination” for Bill Clinton and “conviction” for George W. Bush.

“The challenge here is not whether a specific element is wrong with Barack Obama’s image, but that he does not have one single image,” writes Hart. “He is everyone and no one.”

To further illustrate that point, Hart cites the results of a focus group in which people were asked to describe what kind of kid Obama would have been in their fifth grade class. (Sidebar: This may be our favorite question of the entire 2012 election; everything goes back to fifth grade!)

Obama was alternately described as the “hard worker,” the “teacher’s pet,” the “All-American kid” and the “loner” — a variety of descriptions that speak to the lack of clarity that voters have about just who Obama really is.

Hart writes that the fuzziness that surrounds Obama is ironic; “Here is a president who probably has a better sense of him and his core values than many in public life, but whom voters have less of a sense of personally and his strength of character,” he says.

Misunderstood or not, Obama’s lack of definition is a major problem as he turns toward the 2012 race.

While it behooves a candidate for president to avoid too narrowly defining him or herself — and thereby limiting the potential pool of persuadable voters — an incumbent president runs in large part on the image he has created for himself over the past four years.

Obama’s blurry image isn’t one on which any incumbent would choose to run. The work of the next six months (or so) for the Obama campaign will be filling out and sharpening just who the incumbent is for voters.

Gingrich takes a lead: A new Fox News poll shows former House speaker Newt Gingrich passing Romney and taking first place (within the margin of error, albeit) in the GOP presidential race.

Gingrich is at 23 percent in the poll, while Romney is at 22 percent. Businessman Herman Cain has fallen to third place at 15 percent, while Texas Rep. Ron Paul is at 8 percent and Texas Gov. Rick Perry is at 7 percent.

Gingrich’s rise in the polls is notable both for how much he has risen and how rapidly it has taken place. But as we’ve noted before, many are simply counting the days until he falls back down again.

The poll also shows Romney leading Obama in the general election by two points.

The significance of $15 trillion: Republicans pounced Wednesday on the news that the national debt hit $15 trillion, pushing it as further evidence of Obama’s mismanagement of the economy.

“The legacy of Barack Obama is the most rapid increase in the federal debt of any modern president,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. “In total, he amassed $4.4 trillion in debt in less than three years.”

Similar statements followed from GOP committees and candidates seeking to capi­tal­ize on the milestone.

While the number is really just a number — a moment that skyrocketing debt hit a round figure— it does crystallize matters a bit for the GOP. Republicans hope the milestone serves as a reminder that debt reduction remains a major issue with the “supercommittee” coming up on its deadline.

On that front, Republicans say they are waiting for a counter-offer from Democrats.

Fixbits:

ABC notes that Perry’s new ad takes significant liberties with Obama’s ”lazy” quote.

The conservative group Citizens United is holding an abortion forum in Iowa, hosted by 2008 caucus winner Mike Huckabee.

A day after Cain’s bodyguard got a little physical with a member of the Fix team, a police officer helping out Cain in Florida gets even more physical with a CBS News reporter.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), in full attack dog mode, goes after Gingrich for “shilling” for Freddie Mac.

Pennsylvania state Rep. Jim Christiana (R) lines up a potential challenge to Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.).

Michigan GOP Senate candidate Clark Durant backs off his contention that he would like to see the gap between rich and poor increase.

Both chambers of the Massachusetts state legislature sign off on a redistricting bill that eliminates retiring Rep. John Olver’s (D-Mass.) seat.

In the wake of a blockbuster “60 Minutes” report, a Senate committee will take up the issue of insider trading in Congress.

A gay activist who ran a sting in Marcus Bachmann’s office is being asked to pay for his session.

Must-reads:

Administration officials double as Obama campaign speakers” — Peter Nicholas, Los Angeles Times

Policy and Politics Collide as Obama Enters Campaign Mode” — John M. Broder, New York Times

Feuding hurts Republicans hopes to win Senate” — Jennifer Steinhauer, New York Times

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