What will the president say to get Democrats excited for the coming campaign?

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Sept. 2 2010 7:18 PM

Obama Unleashed

What will the president say to get Democrats excited for the coming campaign?

President Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
President Barack Obama

Labor Day traditionally begins the final sprint to Election Day. So starting today, we're going to offer a new end-of-the-week feature. Each week, I'll post some of the questions I'm trying to answer based on news of the week or something that's come up in my reporting. In the following weeks, I'll try to answer some of these questions. Feel free to weigh in with answers—or with more political questions—at slatepolitics@gmail.com or in the comments section below. Here are this week's questions:

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.

What does Obama unleashed sound like? President Obama has been slowly turning up his political rhetoric for months. He's made broad attacks on Republicans and taken specific shots at people like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He hasn't turned the dial up to 11 though—yet. Before his vacation, he warned Republicans he's going to start. "They've forgotten I know how to politick pretty good," he said before leaving for vacation.

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He's likely to start Monday in Milwaukee, Wisc., at a Labor Day rally. What will the new pitch sound like? Will Obama and his aides fully let go of worries about damaging his post-partisan brand? More important, will the president be effective at rallying Democrats to the polls with more partisan rhetoric? Obama clearly enjoys giving a political speech, but his circumstances have changed since he last gave so many good ones. During the 2008 campaign, he was derided as all pretty words and no substance. Now he faces the opposite problem: He's pushed and passed a heap of big, fibrous legislation but gets criticism (sometimes from himself) for not being very good at communicating.

Enthusiasm vs. ground game. Tea Party activists have given Republicans a huge boost of energy. Polls regularly show an enthusiasm advantage for the GOP. But can the GOP harness that energy and get people to the polls? Democratic officials have been saying for months that it cannot, and this was why the Tea Party was mostly hype. (Unfortunately for their argument, they offered Joe Miller's campaign in Alaska as proof—and look what happened there.)  A new Gallup finding suggests the enthusiasm may be linked to turnout. Republicans are following the campaign more closely, which Gallup says is a key indicator of likelihood a person will vote.

The advantage for Democrats is that they have the better organization. Organizing for America, the Obama campaign operation, has been up and running for more than three years. Some of the volunteers have been knocking on the same doors since Obama was just a freshman senator from Illinois running for president. Personal connections are also key to voter turnout, and these volunteers have made multiple trips to the same houses. If the key for Democrats this cycle is turning out the people who voted for Obama in 2008, these volunteers may be in the best position to make the argument to those voters that despite widespread frustration, Obama and the Democratic Party still deserve their support.

Is control of the Senate really in play? For the last several months, political prognosticators and political scientists have inched up their predictions for a Republican takeover of the House. To make Rep. John Boehner speaker, they need to win a net of 39 seats, which everyone acknowledges is a real possibility (notwithstanding the fact that some Democratic officials are not allowed to admit this). But a Senate takeover has always been considered a stretch. Republicans would need to win a net of 10 seats. That would require Republicans winning not just in tossup states like Colorado and Florida, but also seats in California, Washington, and Wisconsin.  Now things have changed a little. Two influential prognosticators are more open to the possibility of a Senate takeover—or, at least, moving away from the idea that it is an impossibility. Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, predicts the GOP will win eight or nine seats. "If the Republican wave on November 2 is as large as some polls are suggesting it may be, then the surprise of election night could be a full GOP takeover," he wrote. Charlie Cook increased his Senate prediction to a seven- to nine-seat pickup for the Republicans, arguing that "a plausible case can now be made that … 10 seats are within their reach."

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