Opinion writer January 2, 2012

Campaign 2012 is upon us. Time to size up President Obama’s reelection chances. What do the data suggest?

In 2011, an average of 17 percent of the public was “satisfied with the way things are going,” according to the Gallup Poll. That is roughly the same as 2008 — so Obama enters this year leading a country as unhappy as the one he inherited.

The president’s approval rating is lower than his disapproval rating. In mid-December, Gallup had him “underwater” by eight points: 42 percent approval and 50 percent disapproval.

This is four points better than where Obama was in September, reflecting his political victory over congressional Republicans in last month’s battle over extending the payroll tax cut. But the impact appears to have been short-lived. His current Gallup approval rating is the lowest ever for any incumbent president at this point in his first term.

Obama’s ratings on the economy, the issue voters care about most, consistently trail his overall numbers. His top legislative accomplishment — health-care reform — remains unpopular. It’s 20 points underwater in a December Associated Press-GfK poll.

If Democrats saw Obama’s 2008 victory as a chance to build a progressive majority, they have so far failed to capitalize. Gallup recently asked Americans to rate their ideology on a liberal-to-conservative scale of 1 to 5. The average result was a right-of-center 3.3.

More alarming for Obama, voters scored him at 2.3, to the left of center — and put Mitt Romney at 3.5. Every other GOP contender was to the right of the mean, except Jon Huntsman, who hit the ideological bull’s-eye. But even Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann came closer to the middle than Obama did.

The president’s campaign plans to launch a populist attack on income inequality. But the numbers imply that that is not a promising message; indeed, Gallup has recently found that the public favors pro-growth policies over pro-equality policies, 52 to 40.

Unsurprisingly, December polls by CBS News and AP-GfK found that majorities do not believe Obama deserves reelection. Several polls in the past two months put him in a statistical tie with any Republican; and front-runner Mitt Romney is also in a statistical tie with the president.

Of course, this is how Romney stands before the Obama campaign has really started driving up Romney’s his negatives. Whomever the GOP nominates, the Democrats will link him or her to the Tea Party and other perceived extremists.

But Romney may be relatively invulnerable to such a strategy. He is not only seen as closer to the ideological center than Obama is, he is also less polarizing. According to Gallup, Romney is viewed strongly positively and strongly negatively by equal numbers of Americans. Obama, by contrast, inspires 11 percent more hostility than favorability, the same as Newt Gingrich. Even Democrats view Romney with relatively little “negative intensity.”

Of course, the election is not a popularity contest, but a state-by-state race to get 270 electoral votes. Alas for Obama, Gallup recently found that voters in 12 “swing states” favor Romney by five points. In 2008, swing-state party identification favored Democrats by 11 points; now the Democratic edge is down to two points.

On the plus side for Obama, majorities continue to like him personally and to describe him as honest and trustworthy. His foreign-policy ratings are strong, blunting the GOP’s traditional edge in that department. The man who presided over the demise of Osama bin Laden scored a phenomenal 63 percent approval rating on fighting terrorism in an early November Gallup poll.

Also, Obama now scores better than he used to in polls comparing him to Republicans in Congress on job creation. Consumer confidence began to creep up toward the end of 2011, while the jobless rate crept down. If those trends continue, Obama benefits. Though low by historical standards, his approval rating has yet to plunge below about 40 percent, suggesting that he can depend on a rock-solid base of support.

Yet the downside risks for the president are numerous and, from his view, all too easy to identify: a crisis in Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East; Europe’s financial mess; poor sales at taxpayer-supported General Motors.

In short, for all the weaknesses of the Republican opposition, Barack Obama faces a dicey future as 2012 begins. Many factors that could affect his chances are beyond his control.

And if he does win, the prize could be four years of fending off center-right attempts to undo the policies of his first term, rather than pursuing an expansive progressive agenda. Happy new year, Mr. President.

lanec@washpost.com