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Campaign 2010: Hill Dems Getting Steamed at Obama?

4 years ago
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Tick . . . tick . . . tick . . .

That's the sound of a time bomb on Capitol Hill that may soon explode. As the final stretch of the 2010 congressional elections is about to start -- Labor Day weekend is the traditional kickoff for campaign season -- Democrats are increasingly upset at the Obama White House. For weeks, President Obama, whether on vacation or not, has been not been publicly focusing on the only issue congressional Democrats care about: jobs. This week, Obama devoted most of his time to Iraq and the Middle East process. "None of that is going to drive our base to the polls in two months or convince independents to vote D," a senior House Democratic aide complains.

"We grudgingly said okay to Iraq, we grudgingly said okay to the Middle East stuff; it's all important," says a top Democratic Senate strategist. "But if the president doesn't turn to the economy like a laser beam next week, we're going to go wild."

Democrats are spooked by recent polls and predictions indicating the GOP may slam the Dems so badly that the D's lose the House and possibly the Senate. The Republicans need to gain 39 seats to seize the House, and it's not difficult these days to find nonpartisan handicappers who predict the R's could gain 40 to 50 seats. The conventional wisdom in D.C.: A tsunami is heading toward the Democrats. A Democratic strategist toiling on the party's House efforts refers to working on the "Titanic" (though he claims there may be some hidden life rafts). "The president keeps saying it's a tough environment," says a Democratic House staffer. "We know that. We want to know what he's going to do about it."

This week Obama said he has asked his economic aides to propose new measures to boost the economy, but the White House has ruled out any "big new stimulus plan," according to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. So the question is, what can the president do (or propose) that will be sufficiently significant to have a chance of reshaping the electoral playing field? He can go after the Republicans with more fury, accusing them of already obstructing potential economic remedies and blasting their plans to boost tax cuts for the wealthy, to privatize Social Security and Medicare, and to unleash a flood of subpoenas (for who knows what?) on the White House, should they win the House. But Obama often has a hard time shaking his "professorial manner," the Senate Democratic strategist says. Action is better than words in politics. Even so, this aide asks, where is the soaring oratory of the 2008 campaign?

Is it too late for Obama, whose approval ratings have dipped into the mid-40s, to save the Democrats, if many voters are upset about the economy and skeptical of Washington solutions (and spending)? No one knows, of course. But there's not a lot the Dems can do for themselves that isn't already in place. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has raised a ton of money and stood up a strong infrastructure, which will yield ads and get-out-the-vote assistance for imperiled incumbents (as the DCCC cuts the most at-risk Dems from life-support to save funds for others). But the Democratic-controlled Congress is not expected to get much done in the coming weeks, before the next campaign-year recess.

One possible indication of how bad things are: Rep. Tom Perriello's re-election bid. He's a progressive populist Democrat who narrowly beat a Republican incumbent in 2008 in a Republican-leaning district (full of Bible Belt turf) in the central and southern portion of Virginia. Since then, he's been an active and engaged representative, working his district hard, pushing for jobs for his constituents. He voted for Obama's stimulus and health care reform bill, but he has criticized the administration for being too cozy with corporations and for not doing enough to create good-paying jobs in the United States. And he's no flaming lib. He supports gun rights, and he backed the anti-abortion Stupak amendment during the health care legislation debate. He's raised sufficient money. He's aired good-humored ads promoting his endeavors to win jobs for the district.

This summer, I spent a few days with Perriello and concluded that he's basically doing everything right. Still, he could lose this district, which was indeed designed to be an easy GOP win. A recent poll showed Perriello trailing his opponent, a Republican state senator, 61 to 35 percent. There's been criticism of this survey, but even if it's off by 10 points, that's a damn troubling sign for Perriello and discouraging news for his fellow Dems.

Regardless of Perriello's particular plight, Capitol Hill Democrats are looking to Obama for . . . hope. "He still wants to be seen as post-partisan and bipartisan," says a House Democratic leadership aide. "But we're in a fight here." Democrats expect Obama to come out swinging nonstop -- bashing the R's repeatedly and proposing economic initiatives that actually register with voters. At the same time, members of the House Democratic leadership are worried that Obama will cave and yield to GOP demands that George W. Bush's expiring tax cuts for the wealthy be extended. "If he doesn't do something immediately, our members will be livid," says a House Democratic aide. "And when there's fear of a bloodbath, it's never too early to start the blame game."

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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