First, he took on President George W. Bush, then, he switched to direct attacks on House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, and now, in his search for the right message to rally Democratic voters, President Obama is accusing outside groups of trying to buy this year’s congressional elections through shadowy campaign ads.
The evolution suggests that the White House has struggled to settle on a working message as Mr. Obama crisscrosses the country in a bid to drive voter turnout by dangling red meat in front of his base ahead of the crucial congressional midterm elections on Nov. 2.
Hanging in the balance are his party’s majorities in the House and Senate. Republicans will take control unless Mr. Obama can hit the right notes to re-energize the coalition that powered him to the White House two years ago.
“I suspect that they have been prompted by polling data showing that President Obama now owns the economy and John Boehner [is] not well-enough known, and among those who know who he is, not disliked enough to serve as the villain in an effective attack,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
The administration says it’s striking a chord with Mr. Obama’s attacks on outside political groups that are paying millions of dollars to air TV ads against Democratic candidates. The president and other Democrats have seized on shadowy “special interests” that refuse to disclose their donors, such as American Crossroads, which is associated with Bush adviser Karl Rove.
“Right now, the same special interests that would profit from the other side’s agenda, they’re fighting back,” Mr. Obama told a crowd of supporters at a rally last week in Columbus, Ohio. “They’re running misleading, negative ads all across the country. They don’t have the courage, they don’t have the gumption to stand up and disclose their identity. They could be insurance companies, banks - we don’t know.”
Mr. Obama punctuated his warning by saying such groups represent not only a “threat to Democrats. This is a threat to our democracy.”
The emphasis on campaign finance followed attempts to exploit distaste for Bush-era policies by linking candidates to Mr. Obama’s predecessor. The president asked at an August fundraiser in Texas whether voters wanted to go back to “the policies that crashed the economy, that undercut the middle class, that mortgaged our future.”
He used similar rhetoric during a visit to Mr. Boehner’s home state of Ohio to deliver a speech that was critical of the House Republican leader.
Some Democratic strategists questioned the efficacy of those early lines of attack. In a memo to Democratic candidates last month, James Carville and Stanley Greenberg of Democracy Corps said their research showed that messages about the Bush era and of going forward and not back “are helping the Republicans.”
Republican strategist Mike McKenna said it doesn’t look like Democrats made a concerted effort to test their messages before rolling them out.
“The time to think about this was in, like, March when it was obvious that they weren’t going to be able to run on the economy, health care and the stimulus,” Mr. McKenna said. “They obviously didn’t do that, and they’ve spent the last six weeks flailing around. It doesn’t affect them, but it’s going to be fatal to several Democratic candidates because the difference between, for some candidates, not a lot but for some, having a coherent national message could be the difference between winning and losing.”
But Democrats aren’t backing off the campaign finance issue. The Democratic National Committee has introduced an ad titled “Secret Plan” that suggests corporate donors are helping the GOP try to win back control of Congress so they can benefit from lenient oversight. The DNC likewise has a website inviting visitors to sign a petition calling on Mr. Rove “to show exactly who is funding his attack ads.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said it’s not surprising that Democrats are trying to make an appeal to their base voters.
“We are at a point in the election where we normally get to, in every election where individuals are talking to their voters and trying to get them fired up and trying to get them out,” Mr. Gibbs said. “I think that’s what the president is working on doing.”
He said the crowds Mr. Obama has been drawing, including 35,000 in Columbus, are proof that the strategy is working.
The president routinely touts some of the bills his party enacted this year, saying Democrats should be proud of revamping the national health care system, trying to boost jobs through the stimulus and rewriting the rules for Wall Street in the massive financial regulation bill. But with the unemployment rate high and the economy still weak, he has been unable to gain much traction by arguing that he deserves credit for progress.
Progressive leaders say Mr. Obama has failed to deliver on many of his promises from the 2008 campaign.
“It’s great that President Obama is bashing Bush, congressional Republican leaders and big corporations on the campaign trail, but what people who voted for him in 2008 need to see is this type of fighting mentality in his governing,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
“If he had vilified insurance companies from the beginning of the health care fight instead of dealing with them, and held rallies in the states of Republican senators like Olympia Snowe whose constituents wanted the public option, we could have won the public option and Democratic voters would be flooding the polls this year.”