With just 32 days to go until Election Day, the White House is sharpening a campaign strategy that relies on recapturing the magic of 2008 while managing the expectations of 2010 — and countering a Republican effort to frame the Nov. 2 election as a referendum on Democratic leadership.
Over the next month, President Obama is expected to maintain a grueling schedule of fundraisers and campaign events targeting the Midwestern states, California and other key electoral battlegrounds.
“The prediction among the pundits is this is going to be a bloodletting for Democrats,” Obama said in Wisconsin. “They say there is an enthusiasm gap and that the same Republicans and the same policies that left our economy in a shambles and the middle class struggling might ride right back into power.”
So far, the polls support the pundits. The most recent Gallup poll found 48 percent of Republicans “very enthusiastic” about voting in November compared with 28 percent of Democrats. Gallup measured Obama's job approval at 44 percent.
Yet, even while 2010 is shaping up to be the most consequential midterm election in 16 years, Obama's ability to help his party is limited, in large part because of the still-moribund economy.
“There is no silver bullet,” said George Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A&M University. “He has to provide a little catalyst for people to get out and vote, and that is what he can do.”
Edwards added, “And he can raise money.”
Fearing Republicans could take back control of the House and possibly the Senate, the White House is reaching back to themes from the 2008 campaign that helped Obama inspire a record turnout of Democratic voters.
To get there, the president's challenge is walking a tricky line between criticizing Republican policies while lamenting the corrosive effects of partisanship.
“It seems like everybody is out there yelling at each other and angry, and so that is kind of disquieting,” Obama told a small group of supporters this week in Richmond. “It makes people feel like the country is just pulling apart, as opposed to coming together.”
A major hurdle for the party is the widespread discontent among Democratic voters, a reservation those voters expressed directly to Obama himself during his recent visits to people's backyards in Iowa, New Mexico and Virginia.
In Des Moines, Mary Stier told Obama that her 24-year-old son campaigned for him but still can't find a full-time job.
“He and many of his friends are struggling,” Stier said. “They are losing their hope, which was a message that you inspired them with.”
Obama's meandering reply covered the history of recessions, the good character of young people, the importance of education, his student loan program, the housing bubble, small-business tax breaks and the pitfalls of immediate gratification.
“Obviously we're doing everything we can to grow the economy,” Obama said.
Also of concern are Republican efforts to tap into voter discontent on the economy and Washington leadership by framing the election as a referendum on Obama and the Democratic Party.
Democrats are responding with claims that Republican policies and leadership were responsible for the nation's lingering economic woes.