Monday, October 25, 2010

Obama goes on defensive offense

Maybe you’ve seen it — the president hasn’t been himself lately. The man known as Barack Obama, whom we elected about two years ago, has decided to forgo one of the more public perks of the presidency of the United States. Recently, the presidential seal's gone missing from that imposing portable gray lectern that accompanies him everywhere, the one he’s been speaking behind recently more like a campaigner than a U.S. president.

It’s stagecraft made conspicuous by an absence; the disappearing presidential emblem makes a statement about President Obama’s own plummeting polling favorables — First Lady Michelle Obama’s got higher numbers right now — and the anticipated misfortunes of the Democratic Party in the Nov. 2 election.

Obama’s in shirtsleeves campaign mode now, having finished a cross-country sprint in support of Democratic candidates in states thought to be in play. Since Oct. 7 he's visited eight states, from Florida to Washington, in a national circuit that rivals anything he did during his own presidential campaign. He crisscrossed Ohio on Sunday in the company of … First Lady Michelle Obama, stumping for Gov. Ted Strickland — a day after attending a rally for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

The Hill reported that President Obama “will likely add events between Oct. 25, when Obama travels to Rhode Island for a DCCC event, and the Nov. 2 elections.”

It's generally agreed that all this frequent flying is necessary. “He’s not playing offense here, he’s playing extreme defense,” said Howard Fineman of The Huffington Post on Oct. 13, on MSNBC. But some of Obama’s more recent statements from the stump have been anything but defensive.

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"I told you during the campaign it was going to be hard," he said at a campaign rally on Wednesday at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. "Some of you didn't believe me. This is a big messy democracy and the special interests won't go down without a fight and sometimes it can wear you down."

Obama asked supporters to "defy the conventional wisdom" on Nov. 2 by electing Democrat John Kitzhaber, battling a close contest for his old job as governor against his Republican challenger, The Oregonian reported. "If everybody shows up who voted in 2008, John is going to win this election," Obama said at the overflow event.

On Thursday, in a Seattle backyard, Obama refined his pitch to the women voters he said (in Reuters’ paraphrase) “now constituted half the U.S. workforce and [are] responsible for more than half the income of middle-class families.”

“How well women do will help determine how well our families are doing as a whole," Obama said before heading across town, to get a crowd at the University of Washington all Fired Up®.

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And like any good coach whose team is down late in the fourth quarter, Obama’s brought in the big weapon, arguably the most formidable rhetorical weapon in the Democratic arsenal: Bill Clinton.

"To hear the Republicans tell it, from the second President Obama took his hand off the Bible taking the oath of office, everything that happened after that was his fault," Clinton said last week at a campaign rally in Everett, Wash., for Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington state senator in a close fight with perennial candidate Dino Rossi. "I'd like to see any of you get behind a locomotive going straight downhill at 200 miles an hour and stop it in 10 seconds."

As reported by The Washington Post, Clinton distilled the Republican case to the American public: "I know you're angry. I know you're scared. . . . So let's make this a referendum on everything that's bothering you about life right now - take everything that's not working right now and put Patty Murray's face on it and make it a referendum."

"It is not a referendum,” Clinton said. “It. Is. A. Choice."

In these two quotes you get the gist of Bill Clinton’s greatest benefit to the Democrats in general and to President Obama in particular: his ability to boil down the breadth of kitchen-table issues important to American voters to something accessible, avuncular, easy to get the mind around without the sometimes lofty, professorial approach the president has employed to communicate the same information. Clinton’s folks in a way that Obama’s not.

It’s fair to say, too, that, having been out of office for almost 10 years, Clinton can easily shoot from the hip as a private citizen (if a very public one). But he’s an undeniable and necessary force of optimism in this midterm season. Whether he’s got an impact to be multiplied remains to be seen.

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On Oct. 17, before a crowd of about 35,000 Sunday night on the campus of Ohio State University, Obama achieved some of Clinton’s on-point distillation, and his own campaign-tested ability to cut to the chase.

"The biggest mistake we can make, Ohio, is to go back to the very same policies that caused all this hurt in the first place," he said. "The other side is counting on all of you having amnesia."

That last part’s debatable. The Republicans aren’t counting on Democratic amnesia; with so much of their strategy focused on minimizing Election Day turnout, they’re counting to nothing less than existential indifference — voters not voting at all. The current all-hands-on-deck strategy by the Democrats is a concerted effort, if one mounted a little late, to turn that around.

Image credits: Obama: Randy L. Rasmussen, The Oregonian. Obama in Seattle: Jim Bates/The Seattle Times. Bill Clinton and Gavin Newsome: via The Washington Post.

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