Unable to campaign on health care reform or economic improvement, the White House is relying on a fall-back midterm strategy of empathy, modest gains and frequent reminders that the other party is worse.
The modified campaign message is clearly frustrating for President Obama, who increasingly bristles at criticism that his policies haven't worked and this week admonished Democrats to get realistic about the election stakes.
"Folks wake up! This is not some academic exercise," Obama said at a Philadelphia fundraiser. "As Joe Biden put it, Don't compare us to the Almighty, compare us to the alternative."
Obama, who capitalized in 2008 on his aura of cool and many celebrity endorsements, is downplaying the superficial this year -- saying he ran because he cares about Americans and still does.
For the president, who believes deeply in the promise of his still-unpopular health care policy and continues to tout economic improvement in the face of daunting public skepticism, the midterm campaign is a grim, personal retrenching.
"It was easy showing up for the inauguration even though it was cold," Obama said. "I'm polling at 70 percent, Beyonce and Bono are singing. But I believe that the reason [voters] got involved at the outset was not because we had cool pollsters, not because it was the trendy thing to do, not just because my predecessor had become unpopular, but because at some level we understood that the American dream had served each of us very well."
One idea the Democrats are hitting hard on is the message that things may be bad, but Republican policies are worse -- and the Tea Party movement worse than that.
The White House denied reports that Democrats plan to connect Tea Party politics with Republicans as a campaign strategy in the coming weeks. But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland told MSNBC that job is already done.
"The GOP is connecting itself with the Tea Party positions," Hoyer said. "So we don't have to connect them ourselves. The Republican candidates are doing that already."
A new Fox News Poll found Tea Party-backed candidates in states such as California doing well, while in states such as Delaware, many voters support Tea Party principles of smaller government but not necessarily the movement's chosen leaders.
For Obama, a fractured Republican Party represents an opening. The White House hopes to make the election a choice between the two parties, rather than a referendum on Democratic leadership.
"It's a fight for what this country is about -- about our core values," Obama said. "And in an environment in which people are understandably still frustrated and angry and confused about the depths of this crisis, what ([Republicans are] counting on is they can ride fear and anger all the way to victory in November."
Obama got a big dose of voter distress over his economic policies earlier this week, hearing from supporters at a CNBC town hall that they are frustrated, worried and dispirited about the future.
Economic indicators are showing some improvement, but until voters feel their own prospects are brighter, it's not likely to help Democrats at the polls.
"The Democrats' strategy is to depend upon Obama through personal appeal and intensive fundraising, to get the base up on its hind legs and ready to fight turnout battles," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.