During the 2008 campaign, then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was compared to, among others, Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. And, he touted himself as a change agent, someone with a unique set of abilities to transcend the tired old fights that captivated political Washington.

Senior campaign adviser David Axelrod. (AP Photo/Brian Kersey)

“This is going to be a titanic struggle,” Obama chief strategist David Axelrod acknowledged in a New Hampshire event Tuesday morning.

Obama himself echoed that boat metaphor — an unfortunate one, wethinks — in remarks he made Monday night at a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee in Los Angeles.

Said Obama:

“We’ve been driving through a storm. We had to try to keep this boat afloat through something that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes. And people are weary and hurt. And so the energy of 2008 is going to have to be generated in a different way.”

Obama and Axelrod are clearly engaging in a bit of expectations-management here — for largely strategic reasons. Why?

First and foremost, the tale of Obama’s first three years (or so) in office is that of a failure to meet impossibly high expectations.

The nature of Obama’s victory in 2008 — its breadth, its place in history etc. — meant that when he actually became president, the expectations for what he could or would actually do were well beyond what any single person (even a president ) could reasonably expect to accomplish.

Behind the scenes, even before Obama’s inauguration, his team did everything it could to clarify that the new president wouldn’t change Washington or politics more broadly during his first few months — or even years — in office. But the public level of anticipation drummed up during the campaign, and the expectations behind it, had already run well beyond the team’s ability to control it.

While Obama’s stump speech includes a litany of accomplishments that he had promised on the campaign trail — ending “don’t ask, don’t tell”, health care reform, pulling troops out of Iraq — they have been overshadowed by a sense that, somehow, a vague sense of disappointment that he has delivering less than promised.

Obama and his team are clearly headed in the opposite direction this time around, making certain that everyone knows that he — and the country — have slogged through tough times since 2009. They’ve made crystal clear that the economic situation they confronted upon entering office was much tougher than they expected, and that it makes Obama’s re-election a major challenge.

Obama and his team have to hope that reminding Democratic base voters of the difficulty this election poses will energize them heading into 2012.

As we have written, the Democratic base is something short of enthused at the moment and the president is spending lots of his time — rhetorically, at least — to make sure that changes.

Intensity is a tough thing to generate in politics. But by setting the stakes and making clear that he needs help — Obama and his team have taken considerable heat from many in the Washington establishment for never asking for help — the president and his political team are clearly hoping the the base starts to get excited.

There is risk in the “low expectations” strategy, however. People want their president to radiate a sense of optimism, a belief that things can and will get better. While Obama is careful to offer that positive glimmer in every one of his speeches, it’s possible the good news gets drowned out somewhat by his willingness to echo all of the bad news — for himself and the country — that’s out there. Call it the Jimmy Carter phenomenon .

Expectations, as the Obama team learned over the past few years, are a dangerous thing in politics. Too high and you can’t meet them. Too low and people start believing you can’t change things. Can Obama and his team find an expectations middle ground for 2012?

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