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The Real 2012 Race: President Obama Vs. Candidate Obama (Video)

As the seemingly endless GOP nomination fight grinds on, it's becoming clearer who President Obama's most formidable opponent is likely to be: himself.
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As the seemingly endless GOP nomination fight grinds on, it's becoming clearer who President Obama's most formidable opponent is likely to be: himself.

Sometimes a long, hard-fought primary is good for a party, forcing the candidates to become stronger, better, and more responsive to the electorate. And sometimes a long, hard-fought primary is bad for a party. Like this year's GOP race.

It's not surprising that on Intrade the chances of President Obama getting reelected currently stand at around 60 percent, and that crack prognosticator Nate Silver has also listed President Obama "as about a 60 percent favorite" against Mitt Romney. And that was in mid-February, before the GOP's bizarre equation of religious liberty with curtailing access to contraception -- and weeks before Barbara Bush summed up what many in the GOP establishment (not to mention outside it) are no doubt thinking: "I think it's been the worst campaign I've ever seen in my life."

So for me this election now has two tracks: 1) Obama vs. the GOP nominee; and 2) Obama vs. Obama.

Of course, many things can happen between now and November, and I want to be clear that I think it's crucial for the country -- and the world -- that the president defeat any of his likely opponents. But if present trends continue, and the outcome of the first track appears more and more settled, it's also crucial that we start to focus on the possible outcomes of the second track -- that is, which Obama will be reelected.

Because (again, insert caveat here about anything can happen, etc. etc.) the candidate who at this point has the greatest ability to limit the scope of what can be achieved in an Obama second term is President Obama.

We've all seen the two Obamas in action. There's Campaign Obama, who has a phenomenal ability to inspire and challenge a broken status quo. This is the Obama who said he was going to change the way Washington works and who promised to not "just read the polls and figure out how to keep myself in office." This Obama wasn't going to accept the conventional wisdom of what was possible; instead, he was going to reject the "worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics."

But then there's Governing Obama. This is the Obama who, instead of taking his case to the nation, let the parameters of what was considered possible (on infrastructure investment, on jobs, on foreclosures, on austerity vs. growth, on Afghanistan) be decided by... worn-out dogmas. This is the Obama who rightly insisted on the need for health care for all, but who engineered a new system that, overall, relies on and rewards the same players -- insurance companies, hospital conglomerates, drug manufacturers -- who created and profited from the mess he inherited.

This is the Obama who in a speech will dream of things that never were and ask, "Why not?" and then back at the White House, will look at things the way they are and ask, "Why ruffle too many feathers?"

As David Bromwich wrote after the 2010 midterms, "His eloquence finds its natural key not in explanations but in statements of purpose. Obama wants credit for the highest intentions even when conceding that he lacks the will to fulfill them."

So we have one Obama who in 2007 said, "I am running because of what Dr. King called 'the fierce urgency of now.' I am running because I do believe there's such a thing as being too late." And who in 2008 reinforced it with the assertion that "change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."

And then we have the other Obama, who seemed to be governing with the fierce urgency of... sometime later. Or much later. As he told 60 Minutes in December of last year: "I always believed that this was a long-term project. That reversing a culture here in Washington, dominated by special interests, it was gonna take more than a year. It was gonna take more than two years. It was gonna take more than one term. Probably takes more than one president."

So I guess we weren't actually the ones we were waiting for. Indeed, the one we're waiting for apparently won't even be running until 2016.

There's the Obama who, in the second chapter of his second book, wrote this: "If we aren't willing to pay a price for our values, if we aren't willing to make some sacrifices in order to realize them, then we should ask ourselves whether we truly believe in them at all."

But then there's the Obama who gave this explanation about his failure to keep his promise to close Guantanamo: "It's not for lack of trying. It's because the politics of it are difficult."

There's the Obama who, in his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, said, "... the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result."

And then there's the Obama who, just after winning the election, introduced a critical member of his administration with these words: "[He] helped guide us through several major international financial crises. I am glad he will be by my side, and I will rely heavily on his advice." The man he was introducing was Larry Summers, who, among other things, was instrumental in the dismantling of the Glass-Steagall Act, a move that helped bring on the current financial crisis.

So if the question about whether Obama will win continues to recede, as I hope it will, the question of which Obama will win becomes more and more paramount.

This is not to say that Obama should do what progressives -- or any other part of the electorate -- want him to do; this is quite simply holding him accountable to what he claims he wants to do.

The measure of President Obama should be the bar set for him by Candidate Obama. Unfortunately, the way the race has shaped up, the bar is set considerably lower. Take, for example, the questions David Axelrod was asked just before Super Tuesday. They included one about Newt Gingrich's call for Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to be fired and, of course, one about Rush Limbaugh's "slut" comments. That's a pretty low bar for the Obama campaign to jump over. And if, as the campaign moves forward, the majority of the questions President Obama and his surrogates are going to be faced with are simply responding to whatever outlandish statements are coming from the Republicans, that's clearly not going to be the most productive debate the country could be having. Given the real problems we're facing, and the fact that a presidential election should be the time to discuss and debate them, the bar should be much, much higher than that.

So instead of simply asking President Obama to respond to the most extreme or bizarre Republican statements, how about asking him instead to respond to the boldest and most ambitious statements from... Barack Obama?

At HuffPost, our plan for 2012 is to vigorously cover both tracks of the election. Which is to say that while we are exhaustively covering the race between President Obama and the Republican nominee, we're also going to be covering that second track: Obama vs. Obama. And we'll be covering it in a variety of ways: by comparing the reality of President Obama with the rhetoric of Candidate Obama; by focusing on real underlying problems in the country that are being temporarily masked by a slight improvement in the unemployment numbers; and by using satire.

As Paul Krassner, founder of The Realist, once said, "Sometimes humor is just a way of calling attention to the contradictions or the hypocrisy that's going on officially... That's the function of humor -- it can alter your reality." And our reality definitely needs to be altered.

To that effect, today we're launching a series of videos that will try to call attention to the contradictions of that second track of the election. This first one takes on the idea, often put forth by various members of the Obama camp, that every compromise, capitulation, and seeming surrender to the "worn-out dogmas" of Washington are, in fact, just a brilliant strategy that we don't yet understand. Maybe it's better if I just let Obama's chief strategist explain...

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