Will Obama excite the base or play to the middle?

President Obama moved to put this week's election behind him with a deep pivot toward the upcoming House vote on health care reform, but fallout from the voting is likely to follow him to Capitol Hill.

The president made an unannounced stop in the White House briefing room to talk tough about the reform bill, touting endorsements by the American Medical Association and the American Association of Retired Persons.

“They know it will protect the benefits our seniors receive, not cut them,” Obama said. “So I want everybody to remember that the next time you hear the same tired arguments to the contrary from the insurance companies and their lobbyists, and remember this endorsement the next time you see a bunch of misleading ads on television.”

The administration has tried to argue the election results, notably Democrat Bill Owens' win in New York's 23rd Congressional District, long a Republican stronghold, is a clear signal that moderate Democrats should support health care reform.

But many Democrats seem to find more instructive the lessons of the Virginia governor's race, where Republican Bob McDonnell defeated Democrat Creigh Deeds in part by depicting him as an enthusiastic supporter of Obama's policy agenda.

The president on Friday will make a rare stop on Capitol Hill to address the House Democratic Caucus ahead of Saturday night's scheduled health care vote. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the visit shouldn't be interpreted as a sign Obama is worried about votes.

“His visit is a sign of trying to continue to make progress and get this done,” Gibbs said.

The pressure is on Obama and the Democratic Party to deliver. Having run in 2008 on a promise of hope and change, progress on his agenda has been spotty. The at-best mixed results for Democrats on Tuesday portend a tough slog to next year's midterm elections, particularly without significant improvement in the economy.

After a summertime free fall in the polls, Obama's job approval rating has leveled off and is now safely moored the mid-50s, according to several pollsters. But an erosion of support for the president's policies among independent voters is more worrisome.

The president has shored up his base in large part by stepping up his partisan rhetoric — taking on Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, former President George W. Bush and responding to criticism lodged by former Vice President Cheney.

His critics have also become more vocally partisan: Thousands of opponents of the current health care reform proposals rallied at the Capitol, putting the so-called Blue Dog Democrats on notice that they will be defeated in 2010 if they vote with Obama.

The president has steered clear of making any remarks on Tuesday's election, although he campaigned for Deeds and defeated Democratic New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine. Gibbs said Obama did not watch election results.

But the president's avoidance of the topic meant the White House lost control of the postelection narrative. The job of filling in those story lines fell to worried Democrats.

In Virginia, four Democratic House members saw their districts vote for McConnell on Tuesday. It was a grim wake-up call for many, and a stark counterpoint to Owens' example in New York.

“Democrats are going to have to deliver for their base if they are going to excite their base,” said Rep. Gerry Connelly, freshman class president of the House and one of the Virginia Democrats whose districts went for McConnell.

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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