Referendum on Obama? Depends on who wins.

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.

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.

"If all three go Republican, it's a referendum on Barack Obama," he opined on Fox. But then he suggested that even a victory by Republican Bob McDonnell in Virginia would be sufficient to bestow referendum status. "If that goes McDonnell's way, of course, that is going to be the referendum," Reagan amended.

Obama aides have been so determined to protect their boss from referendum fever that they began leaking accusations a couple of weeks ago that Creigh Deeds, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, was in bad shape because he had ignored the White House's advice.

The work was still being done in Monday's White House briefing. "What do you tell generic Democratic Congressman X not to read into the results in a New Jersey or a Virginia?" NBC's Chuck Todd asked Gibbs.

"I don't think that these elections will portend a lot," Gibbs pleaded.

But it's hard to distance the president from the candidates when he has made appearances for Deeds and for Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey; Vice President Biden was in New York on Monday making an appearance for Democratic congressional candidate Bill Owens. In New Jersey, Corzine and the Democrats have borrowed Obama's "Yes We Can" slogan, and Corzine has told voters that "President Obama needs us." Former president Bill Clinton, apparently straying from the White House line, even used the R-word in a fundraising appeal for Owens: "With the world watching, this race will be seen as a referendum on President Obama's agenda."

The world agrees. Even the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur calls it an "early referendum on Obama." Here at home, journalists cautiously concur that it "could end up being a referendum" (CNN's John Roberts), will be "seen by many as a referendum" (the Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot) or will be regarded as "some kind of referendum" by "a lot of people" (NBC's David Gregory).

Interviewed on CNN on Sunday, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, almost validated the Democrats' talking points when he called it "a great overstatement to say this is a referendum on President Obama." But Barbour recovered quickly, saying Obama's "policies have had a lot of effect on people's thinking."

They certainly have had an effect on Hannity's thinking. Almost nightly for the past few weeks, the Fox commentator has been making the case for calling Tuesday's contests a referendum. "I think it's a referendum on Obama," he said on Oct. 13. "This is a referendum -- these are referendum races," he said two weeks later. "I think this is a referendum election," he said a couple of days later about the New Jersey race, "even if it's close."

"Many," Hannity said of the Virginia race, "are viewing this as a referendum on the president himself."

Unless, of course, the Democrats win. In that case, Tuesday's "referendum" will be canceled faster than a runoff election in Afghanistan.

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