Can Obama be as good a campaigner for his party as he is for himself?

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April 30 2010 6:55 PM

Love Me, Love My Party

Can Obama be as good a campaigner for his party as he is for himself?

Tim Kaine and Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama speaks with Tim Kaine in the background

Democrats revealed themselves as the "Results Party" this week. They can only hope the new pitch will work like it did for George W. Bush in 2000 in his primary race against John McCain. Facing a tough a landscape similar to the one Democrats face now, Bush billed himself as a "Reformer With Results." He needed to redefine the race from a referendum on the appeal of McCain into a choice between their two records. A little more than a month later, Bush was the nominee.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

There are two parts to this "results" message: I have produced results, and the other guy hasn't. Bush's message was about what he'd done in Texas, but it was also that McCain was a phony. The Democrats, too, are pushing a two-pronged message. "Republicans have obstructed the president and worked to defeat his and the Democrats' agenda for one primary reason: political calculation," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, announcing the new pitch. "They have placed their own politics above progress on our nation's most pressing issues."

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This new approach is aimed at President Obama's 2008 voters: Democrats who were energized by the new candidate but also the 15 million voters who entered the political process for the first time because they liked Obama so much. This presents a tension for Obama. If the strategy relies on beating up on Republicans, how mean can he get? If he takes on Republicans too much, he could dampen the enthusiasm of the voters from 2008 who fell in love with his post-partisan, bridge-building message. If the president keeps it positive and hopeful, he may not be able to motivate enough voters to compete with conservative voters, who are very motivated.

Talking about results is not exactly a new idea (in politics or this year). Pollsters and Democratic officials have been talking about the need to show voters tangible progress for months. However, having a big public slogan unveiling helps capture the attention of reporters who like to cover the process of campaigns. The lunch hosted by the Christian Science Monitor at which Kaine unveiled the message was well-attended.

It also gives Democrats another chance to remind everyone what those results are—improvement in the economy, heightened activity in the war on terror, reform of the health care and financial regulatory systems. People need reminding. Polls show that voters aren't pleased with Obama and the Democrats. In a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 60 percent of registered voters say they are looking for someone new rather than an incumbent. On Obama's performance on the economy, the gap between those who strongly disapprove and those who strongly approve is 15 percentage points (39 percent to 24 percent). On the deficit, the gap is 22 points (42 percent to 20 percent).

In response, Kaine said, "It's up to us to tell that story well." He may be saying this the day after the election. The president has had a hard time getting his message across. On health care reform, for example, the president promised Democrats that once the legislation passed, it would become more politically popular. It has not. The numbers have gone in the opposite direction.

Democrats need to do more than just win a kitchen-table debate. They need to create voter energy. Republican voters are energized (despite the GOP's overall bad ratings) and anti-government independents are motivated to remove incumbents, more of whom are Democrats. Energizing Democrats requires a mix of inputs, but one of the ways it can be done is through the kind of sharp message Kaine is previewing—Republicans threaten the things Democrats care about. The promise of Obama, which these first-time voters supported in 2008, cannot be realized if Republicans continue to stand in the way.

Kaine and other Democrats can't be the only ones to send this message. The president is the most effective speaker on this topic. Not only is he the most popular Democrat in the business, he's also had some success. He took on insurance companies at the end of the health care debate and had some success. He called out Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently in the debate over financial regulatory reform and increased the political pressure that ultimately helped break the legislative impasse.

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.

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