We got a view of how far Obama can go during the Massachusetts Senate race. As Kaine says, that race "was the ghost-of-Christmas-future experience for us"—a precursor of what they will face in November. Obama, in the one speech he gave in support of the Democratic candidate in that race, put the choice in stark terms, defining Republicans as "protectors of the big banks, and protectors of the big insurance companies, protectors of the big drug companies."
Obama and Democrats won't benefit from residual anger at Bush as much as they did in 2008. They also can't rely on the more important motivator in that election: Obama's message that he was going to change Washington. Almost 70 percent percent of new voters in 2008 chose Obama based on platform of change, according to a CNN analysis.
Washington hasn't changed since Obama came to office. It is as partisan as it has ever been. There are many reasons for this. Voters overwhelmingly think that it's because Republicans have been obstructionists. But leaving aside for a moment the question of blame, the question is whether 2008 voters who had hoped for a better political atmosphere are going to get motivated all over again if that kind of change seems unlikely. They may get even more apathetic if Obama plays too prominent a role in cutting up the opposition.
George Bush's former pollster Matthew Dowd thinks that, regardless of whether Obama draws sharp distinctions, he has lost his ability to motivate voters the way he did in 2008. "He has put himself in the position Bush put himself in after five years," says Dowd. "He's forgotten the rationale for why he was elected. He ran and won because he was going to bring the country together. That's been thrown aside in favor of getting accomplishment on certain issues."
The counterargument is that Obama won't necessarily have to continue his trajectory of increasing partisanship. He can leave the tough stuff to others. He can simply return to the message of hope and optimism he sold so well in 2008. He will speak as passionately about what he has accomplished as he did when he spoke to Democratic lawmakers about the need to pass health care reform on the eve of the vote. That will remind voters—particularly the 15 million who don't like negativity—why they had such hope for Obama in the first place. He's done it before, on his own behalf. Now the president and his party just have to hope that he can do it again, on behalf of his fellow Democrats.