The Republicans faced substantial challenges at their just-concluded convention: a hurricane, a range war between party regulars and Tea Party insurgents, a bland nominee in danger of being overshadowed by his own vice-presidential candidate. But nobody ever said U.S. presidential politics was an easy game.
Which explains why the Democrats – who control the White House and the Senate, and whose presidential nominee, an incumbent consistently rated in polls as more personable than his rival – have formidable burdens of their own this coming week in Charlotte.
There's the economy, of course: Barack Obama's stewardship has left millions unemployed or underemployed, growth is sluggish and prospects for a second dip of the recession remain real. There's international affairs: The threat of a nuclear weapon in Iran remains real, the war in Afghanistan remains hot and the international image of the United States remains cool. And all that without counting myriad stubborn domestic problems, such as cutting the budget deficit and resolving how to pay for old-age supplements and medical care.
So as the Democrats begin to gather in North Carolina, a state not immune to hurricane winds or the gales of social and political change, they have big challenges for their quadrennial convention, which begins Tuesday. To succeed in Charlotte, and to position themselves for a triumph in November, the Democrats must do the following:
Restore the energy and sense of irresistibility that Mr. Obama once sowed.
In modern times, only John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan have moved into the White House on gusts of hope as powerful as the ones that carried Mr. Obama into the executive mansion in 2009. Then he encountered the problem that JFK recognized early in 1961: Things actually were as bad as he said they were during the campaign.
Mr. Obama's administration has many accomplishments that the President's grandchildren will see on their history apps, if not in their textbooks. He redeemed an ambition held by every Democratic president since Harry Truman, which was to pass a comprehensive national health-care plan. He did what no modern Democratic president but Lyndon Johnson has done, supporting a substantial extension of civil rights – in this case, marriage for gays, in the face of obstinate opposition with roots in centuries of custom and tradition.
But almost everyone, including the most partisan of Democrats, acknowledges that the President has lost the stardust he possessed in 2008, when all things seemed possible. One of the things that seemed possible was to reduce unemployment to 8 per cent or even lower.
Come to peace with the political limits of the Obama era, or resolve how to overcome them.
For four solid years, Mr. Obama has faced a recondite Republican congressional delegation determined to see him fail. He won Obamacare without a single Republican vote, a dangerous departure from the modern American political practice of passing major social and economic legislation (Social Security in 1935, Medicare in 1965) with support from members of both parties.
While Mr. Obama is criticized from one corner for this failure to win GOP support, he is criticized from another for supporting a health-care bill and stimulus program that were so modest that they did not remotely conform to his campaign promises, nor the fondest desires of his liberal supporters.
Next week's convention is the only time in four years party leaders and representatives of the major Democratic constituents – university liberals, working women, blacks, gays and union members, especially teachers – will assemble in one place. They would do themselves and their nominee a favour by either determining whether they can live with the limits of Mr. Obama's room to manoeuvre or settling on a strategy for expanding his opportunities.
Address the Ryan factor.
Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, has motivated the GOP's conservative base the same way Mr. Obama ignited the Democrats' liberal base four years ago. Moreover, Mr. Ryan is playing Mr. Obama's role as change agent and repository of a party's hopes. He also has a plan for addressing Social Security and Medicare shortfalls, twin crises that will cripple the U.S. economy, perhaps sooner than later.
In many ways, Mr. Ryan poses a bigger danger to Mr. Obama's re-election hopes than presidential nominee Mitt Romney does. With Thursday night's acceptance speech, Mr. Obama must recapture the dreamy romance of 2008. No president can be re-elected if his opponents' ticket occupies the spiritual high ground. Reclaiming that, and showing the resolve to tackle the problems that Mr. Ryan has addressed, is Mr. Obama's biggest goal next week.