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Washington Sketch: Will elections be a referendum on Obama? Depends on who wins.

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By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

So, will Tuesday's elections in Virginia, New Jersey and New York be a referendum on the Obama presidency? Let us put the question to a plebiscite.

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White House press secretary Robert Gibbs votes no. "The notion that this [is] somehow a referendum on President Obama is just not the case," he said of the Virginia gubernatorial race.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele votes yes. "These are bellwether races -- not just as a referendum on this administration, but on our party as well," he told Adam Nagourney of the New York Times.

David Axelrod votes no. "I don't really view those elections that way," the Obama Svengali told CNN's Wolf Blitzer when asked about a "referendum of President Obama."

Karl Rove votes yes. "So is this really a referendum on Obama, or is this just the political tide changing?" Fox News's Sean Hannity asked the George W. Bush Svengali.

"Well, I think it's both," Rove replied.

Referendum results: Two votes to two. For a tiebreaker, let's query Jeri Thompson.

"Is this now a referendum election on Obama?" Hannity asked the Republican pundit and wife of Fred.

"Well," she replied, "it definitely may be."

Hard to argue with a definite maybe.

Pre-election handicapping and expectations-setting are political staples, but perhaps never more so than now, in a post-presidential-election year in which voters in Virginia and New Jersey are choosing governors. (An odd contest in Upstate New York to fill a vacant congressional seat has been added to the fun.) As a predictor of future elections, the Virginia and New Jersey races are unreliable. But as fillers of airtime and column inches, they are immensely valuable.

This year, Democrats are determined to assert that the elections are not a referendum; this is because they expect to lose. Republicans, who expect to win, are pro-referendum. Then, in another category, there is conservative commentator Michael Reagan, who believes it should be viewed as a referendum only if the Republicans win.


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