What's Obama doing to try to fire up drooping Democrats?

Obama has busted out of Washington to try to regain some of the 'rock star' glow that fueled Democratic voters in 2008. He's also trying to prevent the election from being a referendum on him.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama greets the crowd at a rally at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., on Sept. 28.

President Obama and the Democrats are facing the possibility of big losses in the coming 2010 midterm elections. With the vote now only a few weeks away, how is Mr. Obama trying to fire up his party for the fall?

He’s the head of the party, after all, despite all those GOP bumper stickers urging voters to “Fire Nancy Pelosi.” If Republicans win control of both the House and Senate, the next two years could be very tough ones for the administration. So it’s his job, politically speaking, to get out there and try to raise the spirits of disgruntled and apathetic Dems.

Well, what he’s done this week is break out of the White House grounds. Wednesday morning he’s in Des Moines, Iowa, in the back yard of Jeff and Sandy Clubb, answering questions from 70 of their neighbors. (Have they been screened to try to keep people from asking embarrassing questions, such as the one Obama fielded at a similar event earlier this week about why he’s a Christian? We’d say, "you betcha.")

Later Wednesday he’ll be in Richmond, Va., for another cozy backyard event. Just you, the folks from the block, and dozens of Secret Service agents wearing suits and earplugs.

Mixed in with these chats was Tuesday’s big rally at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. From a media relations perspective, the White House has gone low/high: intimate settings that attempt to show the president as a real person, combined with big events that have something of that old rock star glamour (for which the GOP criticized him in 2008) and that allow Obama to try to outline a message intended to prod yawning Democrats to the polls.

What is that message? If you look at what Obama’s said this week, it has a number of interlocking parts.

You're a shareholder. In his Madison address, the president began by framing his 2008 election as the result of his supporters overcoming the status quo to elect a skinny guy with a funny name. His implicit message was that the supporters thus share in the responsibility for what happens to the administration.

“Every single one of you is a shareholder in that mission of rebuilding our country and reclaiming our future. And I’m back here today because on November 2, we face another test,” said Obama.

The midterm's not a referendum on me. Midterm elections, generally speaking, are seen by voters as referendums on the party in power. Are they doing a good job? If not, let’s throw them out – or, least those who are up for reelection.

But in Madison, Obama tried to change this view. He said the vote was still partly about Republican policies of the past. The “failed policies” of the past helped create the economic crisis, said Obama. The GOP leadership in Congress has been content to just sit back and let the administration deal with the problems “that they had done so much to create,” he said.

Change is still out there. At the big Wisconsin rally, Obama listed what he said were his administration’s accomplishments, such as the passage of health-care reform and Wall Street reform legislation. He said he figures he’s covered “about 70 percent” of the checklist with which he came into office.

But the tone of Washington is as harsh as ever, and according to polls many voters don’t think Obama has brought about the radical change in the nation’s political process that he promised in his presidential race.

Well, said Obama, we’re bringing about change, but it’s hard, and you need to stick with me. “Change is going to come, if we still work for it, if we still fight for it,” Obama said

Will this work? Well, it’s almost certain that the Democrats are going to lose a lot of House seats, so what’s at issue is not so much victory as a softening of the loss. There is some evidence, too, that voters still view Republicans as partly to blame for the economic crisis, meaning they might not view the election as solely a referendum on Obama. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 56 percent of respondents believe that the president inherited the current problems with the economy.

But only 42 percent of respondents in the NBC survey approve of how Obama has handled the economy he inherited. Other poll data, from surveys about whether the country is on the right or wrong track, to the question of whether voters prefer to vote for generic Democratic or GOP congressional candidates, all point to a Republican wave in November, according to polling expert Steve Lombardo, who worked for President George H.W. Bush.

“We are seeing an intensifying political storm that for Democrats is the electoral equivalent of a catastrophic hurricane,” wrote Mr. Lombardo in an analysis on Pollster.com.

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