Five weeks. Thirty-five days. Eight hundred and 40 hours. Fifty thousand 400 hundred minutes. Or 3,024,000 seconds. That's how much time is left between now (that is, this Tuesday morning) and the 2010 midterm elections. Is that sufficient time for President Obama to do anything -- and I do mean anything
-- to change the political landscape before Nov. 2?
Weeks ago, as the final stretch began, Democrats in Washington were beginning to grouse
that Obama was not revving up the base -- let alone winning back alienated (or disappointed or angry) independent voters. It didn't even look as if he was trying that hard. The White House had no August strategy. And Obama used the back-to-school period to address foreign policy matters
-- a speech about Iraq, meetings with heads of state about the Middle East -- that, as important as they may be, don't have much immediate political impact. Have no fear, White House backers said, there's still time for Obama to fire up voters. Now, almost a month later, it seems as if time is slip-sliding away rather quickly, while Obama's efforts remain somewhat conventional. He is mounting campaign-style road trips, touting his economic policies and slapping the Republicans. He's slamming them for being obstructionists who care more about tax cuts for the well-to-do than those for middle-class Americans and blasting them for serving as handmaidens of corporate lobbyists. This past weekend, Obama ripped the House GOPers' Pledge to America as a rehash of failed policies: "That's not a prescription for a better future. It's an echo of a disastrous decade we can't afford to relive."
But at this point, can such intermittent rhetorical counter-punching register with voters? Especially when the president needs to cut through the clutter of the hyper-media world. My advice to him and anyone else who wants to send a message to info-bombarded and stressed-out Americans: use a baseball bat. And use it repeatedly. Nuance is too quaint.
There may be little Obama can say or do, when unemployment is nearly 10 percent, to help his fellow Democrats facing an irate electorate. In The New York Times on Sunday, John Harwood maintained
that pundits and strategists who call on Obama to turn on the empathy and forge a more emotional connection with voters are ignoring the historical record. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan both had oodles of connect-with-the-commoners charm, and each lost a load of House seats in his first mid-term election.
But the question at this later-than-you-think moment is whether Obama can prevent the usual first-off-year drubbing from becoming a back-to-the-wilderness Democratic disaster. (It's certainly within the realm of possibility that his party could lose both the House and Senate.) An Obama mind-meld with the electorate -- at least good chunks of it -- wouldn't hurt. If Reagan had not been so good at inhabiting the role of president, perhaps his stay-the-course message of 1982 would have played worse and led to greater losses.
A few days ago, political handicapper Charlie Cook posted a column
that implicitly suggested a path Obama could take -- or could have taken. Cook had observed several hours of focus groups sponsored by Walmart, during which mothers who had shopped at the store within the last month were asked about their lives and their political views:
The first thing that jumped out of the focus group sessions was how out of sync the political debate in Washington and on the cable food-fight shows is from the daily lives of these women. In various ways, we heard each one of them talk about the struggles they face in putting food on the table, clothes on their kids' backs and a roof over their heads. One woman talked about making lunch for her son because they couldn't afford a school lunch. I lost count of the number who, with their kids, had moved into the homes of their parents, in some cases because they had lost their homes. . . .
Every day is a struggle for these families and they feel that elected officials in both parties have abandoned them. Each group was asked, "If elected officials in Washington understood your lives, what would they do differently?" The most remarkable response was from a Denver schoolteacher who said, "I can't imagine that they could ever understand my life."
Someone else wished that elected officials could visit them in a fashion similar to the TV show "Undercover Boss" and see what life is like for working families who weren't in the best financial shape before the economic downturn and are now trying to keep their mouths above water.
Cook concluded that these women -- these voters -- "think both parties are on another planet, and they view their elected officials as unknowing, uncaring and totally disengaged from the lives of those who elect them." (By the way, women voters are critical
to the Democrats' attempt to hold back a GOP surge.) But, Cook noted, there "wasn't much negative talk" about Obama. These anxious, freaked-out moms were not angry at him; they were disappointed, or even sympathetic regarding the challenges he faces in making things better.
Obama had an opening with these people. They, no doubt, were looking for a leader who could address their concerns and worries, even if he couldn't fix their problems. In political terms, they were reachable. But no politician has been reaching them. Obama aides can point to this speech or that statement to show that the president has indeed been speaking to such voters. But there's no evidence he's connecting. His words haven't worked. And his actions have not created a strong enough impression. A recent Politico/George Washington University poll
shows that 51 percent of likely voters believe that Republicans will do better creating jobs than Obama; only 40 percent chose the president. (When the R's and the D's are matched up on this question, it's a statistical tie -- which ought to be little comfort for Democrats, given that their voters are not nearly as enthusiastic about voting in November as the Republicans' voters.)
So Obama apparently has been doing something wrong. Still, it appears the White House is plodding ahead toward Election Day, staying the course, so to speak -- with Obama holding the usual rallies around the country and sticking to the game plan, whatever it is.
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