US PRESIDENT Barack Obama is in a bind. The obvious strategies available to an incumbent president running for re-election are foreclosed to him.
He cannot run a "Morning in America" campaign in the style of Ronald Reagan in 1984 or Bill Clinton in 1996. In those years, the country was doing well and felt it. A majority of the public now thinks the US is "on the wrong track" as a nation rather than headed in "the right direction". The already dismal jobs picture is growing bleaker: payroll growth slowed and the unemployment rate rose last month, to 8,2%. If voters make their decision based on the state of the US, Mr Obama will lose.
He cannot run on his record of accomplishments either: too much of that record is unpopular. Bringing Osama bin Laden to justice was a great victory, but it has not been matched by any domestic success. His two major legislative achievements were the stimulus enacted in 2009 and the healthcare law enacted in 2010. Both have been chronically underwater in the polls. The Kaiser Family Foundation finds that only 37% of the country looks on the health law favourably. In February, a Pew Foundation poll found the same percentage viewed the stimulus positively.
Running on his unfinished agenda looks no more promising. Mr Obama's main policy initiative in recent months - the Buffett rule to impose a minimum tax level on people with large capital gains and dividends - polls well. But it is politically small. Working out an unfair kink in the tax code (to look at it in a positive light) cannot carry Mr Obama to re-election.
He could pledge to fight for immigration reform in his second term. But his failure to expend any capital on the issue when he had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, or at any point since, would make such a pledge seem like the repetition of old talking points. And the reason Mr Obama did not make more of an effort - serious opposition, even among Democratic voters, to the kind of reform he favours - has not gone away.
To win the election, then, Mr Obama has to run a negative campaign against Mitt Romney and the Republicans. In recent weeks, the president's aides have been attacking Mr Romney for saddling companies with debt when he was in the private sector, increasing the liabilities of Massachusetts when he was governor and creating few jobs in either capacity.
It is hard to see these tactics paying off. Federal debt has increased under Mr Obama by orders of magnitude more than any sum Mr Romney has overseen. If the Democrats talk about debt, they will be prolonging a conversation they cannot win.
And while Massachusetts may have ranked 47th among the states in job creation under Mr Romney, the country would be delighted to have the 4,7% unemployment rate he left it with.
Another temptation will be to attack Mr Romney on social issues. "Let's be clear what he would do as president," Obama adviser David Plouffe said recently. "Potentially, abortion will be criminalised. Women will be denied contraceptive services." Most Americans do not want all abortions banned, or contraception made inaccessible. But Mr Romney's election would not yield either result, and most people know it.
Mr Obama's best bet is probably to hit Mr Romney again and again over his plans for social security and Medicare. That is a big issue: nothing Mr Romney is proposing would be more consequential. And it is an issue where Mr Obama can draw on strong public sentiments. Most people believe the programmes need reform. But in a Pew poll last year, Americans favoured preserving benefits to reducing deficits by almost two to one. In a poll this March, just 26% of the public favoured the Republican idea of changing Medicare so that beneficiaries pick a health plan and get a "fixed sum of money" to meet the costs.
A defence of the two entitlement programmes as now structured would not be the most edifying of spectacles. It would require Mr Obama to foster the false impression that the approaching insolvency of the welfare state has painless solutions. But it would force Mr Romney to confront the issue, and the US would get the debate it deserves rather than months of sniping.