This week's Democratic convention could be remembered as the moment President Obama's poll numbers started rising. If they don't, the case for his re-election, so far stubbornly unpersuasive to more than half of the electorate, will remain so.
There are reasons to think Obama can succeed in Charlotte, N.C. The first is the power of incumbency. Democrats will be rallying around a proven winner, and proven winners are hard to beat. Out of the 18 elected presidents who have sought re-election since 1900, only four have lost, the last one 20 years ago.
The second factor working in Obama's favor is the decline of national security as a partisan Republican issue. The assassination of Osama bin Laden, combined with a war-weary electorate, has changed the game considerably since 2004. Mitt Romney's total omission of the Afghanistan War from his address on Thursday was an acknowledgement of this.
That's the sunny side for Obama. On the other side are a number of obstacles, chief among them being his record.
On the economy, Obama did inherit a mess. But three years later, real income is lower, there are fewer jobs in America, and the U.S. government has trillions more in debt. Even Democratic Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley had to admit on television this weekend that Americans are not better off now than they were four years ago. Try explaining that to a national audience -- especially given Obama's famous quote that his presidency would be a "one-term proposition" if he didn't prove up to the task of fixing that mess.
On health care, Obama's reform bill remains as controversial and as unloved as ever. Even worse for him, Obamacare has neutralized the Democratic weapon of using Republican Medicare cuts to scare senior citizens because the health care "reform" takes so much money out of the Medicare program without improving its solvency.
Finally, Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate has generated both skepticism about Vice President Joe Biden and considerable conservative enthusiasm. Ryan probably solves Romney's base problem, and it puts a formidable, knowledgeable Obama critic -- a man with a knack for getting Obama's goat -- into the limelight.
What does all this mean for the convention that begins today in Charlotte, N.C.? First, expect to hear tons of Romney-bashing, but not too much. A convention dominated by negativity cannot motivate young Americans to dig out their fading Obama posters and re-create the enthusiasm of 2008.
Second, expect many references to bin Laden. The choice of John Kerry to deliver a speech on national security may sound dull, but the message is clear: If you voted for George W. Bush in 2004 based on that issue, here's your chance to reconsider.
Third, expect Obama to do exactly what Bill Clinton did in 1996 -- that is, campaign on Bill Clinton's record. Obama cannot plausibly campaign on his own economic record, but he will be nominated by a president who raised taxes and still presided over prosperity, as Obama hopes to do. Democrats will go to the tax-hike well often this week, couching the debate (as Clinton once did) in terms of making the wealthy pay their fair share.
Finally, Democrats will focus heavily on social issues, with several little-known abortion advocates warning of a "Republican war on women." This strategy is often a sign of desperation -- witness Creigh Deeds' unsuccessful campaign for governor of Virginia in 2009 -- but it is only part of the package for Obama, and it will at least distract some voters from the economy.
In short, Obama has his work cut out for him this week. It's not an insurmountable task, but the favorable conditions he enjoyed four years ago no longer exist.