President Obama tries to push Democratic voters out of their seats.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 28 2010 5:47 PM

The Buck Starts Here

President Obama tries to push Democratic voters out of their seats.

Play Lean/Lock, Slate's election-prediction game. 

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, President Obama tried to stir Democratic voters this way: "People need to shake off this lethargy. People need to buck up. ... If people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren't serious in the first place." Insofar as a campaign strategy can be contained in a quote, it's an interesting one. But before I continue with this story, allow me to interrupt with a question. If you're a Democratic voter, what do you hear when the president says, "Buck up"? Enter your response in the box below or in the comments section.


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.

Rahm Emanuel

The president must already miss his soon-to-depart Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. When people in the White House say, "Buck up," they often receive Emanuel's favorite epithet in return. (Hint: The first word of the phrase rhymes with buck.) Telling people to "buck up" suggests they are ignorant, inattentive, or lazy. This doesn't seem a promising approach to bringing Democrats out of their fuming repose.

Of course, for those who already share the president's point of view, this call will seem reasonable. For the last few weeks the president has been telling Democrats "wake up" to what's at stake in this election. If they don't participate, Republicans will take over. Whatever the Obama administration's deficiencies, Republican control of either or both houses of Congress will be far worse.

But the president isn't preaching to the converted. He's talking directly to members of his base, who are disappointed and angry with him. They've been angered afresh by Vice President Joe Biden, who not only told them to "buck up" but chided Democrats for "whining." (Aside: When has an order to someone to "stop whining" made that someone less irritated?) Since the president's performance in office is at issue, the "buck up" call creates a second offense: It could be read to suggest that the president is blameless in causing the current lethargy. If part of the grievance is that these voters don't think they are being taken seriously or listened to, this would only seem to exacerbate that feeling. Finally, there is a kind of tautological problem: How do you persuade people to stop whining by whining about it?


At best, the president is likely to lock in the existing feelings in his Democratic base. I asked the readers of the Slate Gabfest Facebook page for their responses to the president's remarks. Obama had his defenders—and some excellent translators of his message—but won no converts from the group he was addressing. He did, however, stir some anger. "I hear a President taking no personal responsibility for producing that apathy," said Tim Oliver. "As a left-of-center person, I hear: 'sit down and quit your whining,' " wrote Gant Zky. A Democratic strategist thought the president was building a case for blame after the election: it was all the spiteful base's fault.

"Buck up" isn't the president's only message. White House aides were pointing to the recent small-business legislation to illustrate how the president is delivering despite Republican obstruction. The president will  also be trying to rally the Democratic base in a speech to students at the University of Wisconsin late Tuesday that is likely to have the soaring, lyrical Obama campaign touch. He will argue that all they voted for in 2008 will be undone if they stay out of politics now. The speech will try to lift Democrats to the polls, whereas the "buck up" message seeks to push them there. Perhaps the mix of sweet and sour will be more effective than simply sour.

The Republicans have faced a similar debate with Tea Party members who want purity over electoral viability. The difference with the Republicans is that GOP leaders are courting the activists, not telling them to shape up (a reversal of attention that progressives recognize). It is the establishment GOP figures who are given the counseling. After Christine O'Donnell's victory in the Republican primary in Delaware, Sarah Palin chided Karl Rove, who worried O'Donnell was unelectable. "Well, bless his heart," said Palin. "We love our friends there in the machine, the expert politicos. But my message to those who say that the GOP nominee is not electable, or that they're not even going to try, well I say, buck up!"

Become a fan of Slate  and  John Dickerson  on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.