MADISON, Wisconsin, Sept 28, 2010 (AFP) - It was the defining image of 2008 -- the lone candidate, preaching hope and change to a vast, enthralled, youthful crowd, promising politics could finally make a difference.
On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama tried to turn on the magic again, rallying thousands below yellowing trees in breezy Wisconsin, seeking to buck up his Democrats who fear a mauling in November's mid-term elections.
"I understand people are frustrated, I understand people are impatient with the pace of change," Obama told an overflow crowd of 26,500, his biggest throng since his inauguration in Washington in January 2009.
"Now is not the time to lose heart," Obama roared. "Now is not the time to give up," he said, five weeks ahead of polls in which Republicans hope to overturn Democratic congressional majorities and halt his change agenda.
"You've got to stick with me," he implored.
Once, Obama's soaring speeches, sometimes to tens of thousands stretched as far as the eye could see, promised Americans a new beginning, meaningful change and a way out of wars abroad and bitter political division at home.
The campaign tunes Tuesday were the same, patriotic anthems, Bruce Springsteen standards and U2's "City of Blinding Lights" pumped out of speakers to fire up the crowd into a "Yes We Can" frenzy as Obama took the stage.
But even as he reprised his rock star persona at the University of Wisconsin rally, Obama admitted the gulf between a candidacy and a presidency.
"I know times are tough right now, I know that it sometimes seems a long way from the hope and excitement that we felt on election day," he said.
"But I have to say, we always knew this was going to take time. I said it was going to be hard, I said we would have to make some difficult choices," he said, slamming pundits obsessed with his diminished poll numbers.
"You elected me to do what was right -- that was change you could believe in," he said, reprising his 2008 campaign theme.
Obama's speech sought to draw a narrative arc from that heady hope for change, and a presidency -- not yet two years old -- held hostage by a wounded economy and slowed by blanket Republican gridlock in Washington.
Saddled by approval ratings in the mid-40s, Obama recast himself as the agent of change, in an election year that has been defined by the grass roots fury of the conservative Tea Party movement.
Obama styled his presidency so far as a battle to stave off a second Great Depression, against Republicans in lock-step opposition, and of cleaning up the economic "mess" left to him from the last administration.
He also hit out for the third time in two days at the lethargy of his core supporters, and made a fierce pitch for the youth vote, seeking the same huge turnout that helped send him to the White House.
"They are basically saying you are apathetic, you are disappointed," Obama told the crowd, many of whom were students.
He also lashed out at pollsters who say Obama's youthful legions will stay at home on November 2, when his name is not on the ballot.
"Change is not a spectator sport. If everybody who fought for change in 2008 shows up in 2010 -- we will win," he said
Obama also made the case that his policies had indeed brought about change, naming his health reform bill, another to rein in Wall Street, and his decision to end combat operations in Iraq.
But Democrats still fear a bad night on November 2, with pollsters predicting they will pay the price for being the party in power as many Americans wait to feel any sign of economic recovery.
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll on Tuesday showed a three point edge for Republicans over Democrats, 46 percent to 43 percent, when likely voters were asked which party they want to control Congress.
Though that figure was down from a nine-point Republican lead a month ago, many individual races for Obama's party look problematic and pollsters predict an "enthusiasm gap" which see many Democrats stay at home.
Though Democratic operatives were trumpeting the size of Obama's crowd on Tuesday, a throng of mostly students in a liberal bastion like Madison, Wisconsin may not reflect a wider trend.
Tuesday's rally was around the corner from where Springsteen endorsed Democratic nominee John Kerry before more than 80,000 people in October 2004. Just days later, Kerry lost the election to president George W. Bush.