- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2010

President Obama is sharpening his attack on Republicans as he tries to recast November’s elections from a referendum on his policies to a choice between Democratic and GOP ideas — but it’s a tall task with an electorate that seems intent on sending Democrats a stinging rebuke.

With his approval ratings badly damaged and national unemployment stuck at 9.6 percent, pollsters and analysts say, there’s little chance Mr. Obama can improve voters’ views of Democrats’ stewardship of Congress before the election, so his only option is to make the electorate sour on the Republican alternative.

“Democrats are only going to win by making people hate the Republicans — there’s pretty much no chance that Democrats are going to make people like them in the next five weeks. That ship has sailed,” said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling. “If there is a strategy for Democrats that can help them cut their losses, it’s just painting the Republican Party as being extreme.”

As he begins a four-state swing that includes a political rally in Wisconsin, Mr. Obama is trying to do exactly that. He attacked the House GOP’s “Pledge to America” as “irresponsible,” and accused congressional Republicans of turning their backs on small businesses after most of them opposed the president’s small-business lending fund, which he signed into law Monday.

But he also made a pitch for the young voters who helped power him to victory in 2008 to come out again this year, telling college reporters on a conference call Monday that “you can’t sit out” and “not pay attention during big midterm elections, where we have a real big choice between Democrats and Republicans.”

It’s a recognition that in most midterm congressional elections, where voter turnout is lower than in a presidential year, victory can depend on getting your base motivated — or, just as successful, demotivating your opponent’s supporters.

Campaigning in New Hampshire, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said he understands that voters are angry and are likely to take that out on those who are in power.

“They should be able to be angry with us,” he said. “If we make this a referendum on the current state of affairs, we lose, and so that’s why we’ve got to make this a choice.”

Mr. Biden also urged the Democratic base to “stop whining and get out there and look at the alternatives.”

“The president has done an incredible job. He’s kept his promises,” Mr. Biden said.

Overall, voters appear to disagree. Mr. Obama’s popularity has taken a hit. A Politico/George Washington University Battleground Poll out Monday showed 38 percent of voters said he should be re-elected in 2012.

Still, analysts point out that Mr. Obama’s mid-40s job approval ratings are better than President George W. Bush’s in 2006 and President Clinton’s in 1994, when Republicans gained control of both chambers of Congress.

According to the Real Clear Politics average of polls, the GOP is up almost 4½ points on the generic congressional ballot, by a margin of 46.9 percent to 42.5 percent for Democrats.

Pollsters said it comes down to individual contests.

“If you look at a myriad of races, Senate and House, what you see are very competitive but close races,” said pollster John Zogby of Zogby International. “The fact that the Democrats remain within shouting distance suggests that they’re offering it as a choice to their base, and that’s the public enemy No. 1. Even before you get into swing voters, Democrats need to build up their support and enthusiasm among the key groups that elected Obama and created the majority.”

Democrats have touted a financial advantage in many of the key races this year, and strategist Jamal Simmons said they’ll also have a good turnout operation to push their voters to the polls.

“The place where there’s a competition is on message — that’s a place where Republicans have done a very good job,” Mr. Simmons said. “But the Democrats have now landed on a message that should help them combat that, which is the Republican plans and policies are plans and policies that come straight out of the Bush playbook, and we can’t go backwards.”

Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said, however, that Republicans were unable to turn the 2006 election into a choice rather than a referendum on Mr. Bush, and he said Democrats will have the same problems this time.

“Their message has not broken through. I mean, clearly Obama’s poll numbers are sinking rapidly, the Democrat majority in Congress has fallen — it’s going to be very hard for them to have a succinct message that will punch through to voters and convince them to vote Democrat,” Mr. Bonjean said. “They’ll have to count on a national event to change the trend that’s occurring.”

In Wisconsin, where Mr. Obama is rallying in Madison on Tuesday, Marquette University political science professor John McAdams said the Senate race between incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold and Republican nominee Ron Johnson is a good example of the “trench warfare” in campaigns nationwide.

“Given the unfavorable electoral landscape, clearly the rational Democratic strategy is to try to rough up Republicans who are challenging Democrats,” Mr. McAdams said. “A lot depends on the Republican side on how effective you are at countering Democratic charges.”

In the case of Mr. Johnson, Mr. McAdams noted the businessman — who leads Mr. Feingold in the polls — appears to have been successful in pre-empting an attack on himself for describing Social Security as a Ponzi scheme by coming out with an ad in which he defends his comment.

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