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Politics

Tepid Economy Puts Obama on Tough Path to Second Term

In a fight for independent voters, the president can't ignore GOP attacks on his record.

For President Obama, the not-so-easy challenge at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., is making a case for a second term while defending the first.

LIVE: Our Updates from Charlotte

Whitewashing the hardships faced by millions of families and underplaying painful unemployment numbers will backfire, but so can focusing too much on the glum numbers that are keeping Republican Mitt Romney within striking distance.

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Coming across as too condescending toward the Republican ticket can be costly, too, especially to independents and moderates in the television audience that both sides need to persuade.

So look for Obama and the Democrats to walk a fine line this week. Here's the recipe: Part humility; part defense of a mixed record; part guard dog for the elderly, middle class and women; part attack dog.

Obama's main theme will continue to be that Democrats are better than the Republican alternatives and that the economic path ahead is getting brighter, albeit not quickly.Obama and his surrogates will get a limited pass to describe the economic cards he was dealt when he took office. The cards were clearly bleak, most agree, and Democrats have some room, but only some, to claim so. The dire economy couldn't help but refocus a bright young administration away from the loftier ideas and themes that underpinned the 2008 race, they'll say.

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They'll claim that a massive economic meltdown would have occurred without huge federal interventions that had bipartisan support. They'll say that huge loans to large banks have been mostly paid back, as have emergency loans to auto companies. And they'll defend consumer protections in the Wall Street reform law and the health care law, to rousing applause.

But they'll need to turn quickly to economic improvements ahead and sound as if they mean it. Count on them talking up tax fairness for the middle class all week as well as touting more support for small businesses in a second term, especially aid to those owned by women and minorities.

Also expect to hear a reprise of a big theme brought back from Obama's 2008 campaign: the green economy. Only modest federal steps have been taken to spark private investment in green technology companies, largely because of the deep recession and investor reluctance. Obama will stress a fuller effort in a second administration. He'll frame it as a jobs issue that happens to allow the U.S. to take a lead role in an emerging green economy.

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Democrats in Charlotte will blame congressional Republicans for thwarting action on the budget, deficit and debt. But they can't sound like they're whining about gridlock in a closely divided and highly polarized Congress.

There'll be a foreign policy theme, but it won't be a dominant one. Former President Bill Clinton will probably outline the successes and challenges early on in convention week. He'll no doubt credit the close working relationship between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Pentagon leaders, the CIA and Obama. And yes, the combined work of the military and the administration to track and kill Osama bin Laden will be noted.

One thing is certain: It will be a different convention than in 2008, when people saw a younger Obama with the chance to make history as the first black president, elected with pledges of "Yes We Can" and "Change We Can Believe In."

Those bumper stickers won't stick as well the second time around.

Look for this presidential race to be much closer than the last one.

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