Obama road-tests midterm message with speeches in Missouri, Nevada

By Michael D. Shear and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 8, 2010; 10:54 PM

LAS VEGAS -- President Obama on Thursday offered a sharp-edged preview of his election season campaign message, using fundraisers for Missouri Senate candidate Robin Carnahan and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) to cast the midterms as a choice between economic policies of the past and those of the future.

In remarks reminiscent of the campaign-year Obama that the country often saw in 2008, the president sought to frame the elections as a choice between the Republican economic policies that he said created the recession and the Democratic ones he said have led to a slow recovery.

"The last thing we should do is go back to the very ideas that got us into this mess [in] the first place," Obama said in Kansas City, Mo., with Carnahan standing beside him. "That's the choice you are going to face in November. . . . A choice between falling backward or moving forward."

The president has been slow to gear up his campaign-year rhetoric, a fact that has led to some criticism from his allies who want the White House to be more aggressive. A senior aide promised that "choice" rhetoric is "a theme you'll hear a lot of in the coming four months."

In recent days, West Wing officials have hinted that a tougher, more electorally engaged message was on the way. In a briefing for reporters, press secretary Robert Gibbs suggested Obama would seize on Republican comments that compared the recession to "an ant" and a GOP congressman's apology to BP.

The remarks, delivered first at a closed-door fundraiser and later at an open event in Missouri, largely lived up to that billing. The president offered a tough critique of the economic policies of the Bush era, and he said times have changed.

"They spent nearly a decade driving the country into a ditch and now they are asking for the car keys back. They can't have 'em back. They don't know how to drive," Obama said, expressing surprise that anyone would want to return to the past.

"We already know how this story ends. We don't have to guess how the other party will govern," he said.

Calling out Reps. John Boehner (Ohio), Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Joe Barton (Tex.) by name, Obama said that Republicans had said no to all of the Democratic proposals to address health care, fix the financial system, give women equal pay and hold oil companies accountable.

"Barton and Boehner and Blunt," he said. "Sometimes I wonder if that 'no' button is just stuck in Congress so they can't do what's right for the American people."

In a statement, Boehner responded: "On President Obama's watch, more than three million Americans have lost their jobs and unemployment is near 10 percent. The American people continue to ask, where are the jobs? But the President keeps whining and indulging in childish partisan attacks. How out of touch can he get?"

Obama ended the day at a fundraiser at a Las Vegas casino for Reid, where he delivered an expanded version of the speech he had given in Missouri twice already. But for Reid, Obama revved it up for the crowd of almost 3,000.

He called Reid "a man of principle. He is a straight-shooter. He is a man of his word," and he practically begged the supporters to get out and work to send the embattled senator back to Washington. Obama mocked Reid repeatedly in a playful way for being so soft-spoken, but said he is a fighter who knows how to win.

"Anybody who knows Harry knows he is made of strong stuff. This is one tough guy," Obama said. "He does not give up, he does not give in, he keeps on fighting and he outlasts them."

Obama mocked Reid's opponent in the Senate race, Sharron Angle, saying that she wanted to phase out Medicare, Social Security and federal education funding and had called the compensation fund for BP "a slush fund" -- a statement he said her campaign later said was a kind of mistake.

"I'm sure she meant slush fund the nicest possible way," Obama joked. The boisterous audience ate it up.

Earlier in the day, Obama toured an electric truck plant in Kansas City to argue that his stimulus program is bolstering the country's long-term economic interest by reshaping the energy industry.

Obama said the trucks converted at the Smith Electric plant represent the leading edge of an industry that will put Americans to work for generations. The company -- which plans to add 50 new employees, doubling its workforce -- received a $32 million Recovery Act grant to help launch the assembly plant.

"At this plant, you are doing more than building new vehicles," Obama said. "You're helping us to fight our way out of a vicious recession and you are building the economy of America's future."

During his two-day trip, Obama is road-testing a midterm election message: The country can achieve Wall Street reform and curb corporate interests only if it elects -- or reelects -- lawmakers from his party.

"There are those who argue that we ought to abandon our efforts -- and others who have made the political calculation that it's better to obstruct than lend a hand," he said at the plant. "But my answer is that they ought to come here to Kansas City."

On the stimulus issue, one political challenge for Obama is to demonstrate to recession-weary voters that the benefits of the clean-energy investments are not so far off as to seem meaningless, especially for those who don't have jobs.

With midterm elections just around the corner, many polls suggest an impatience with Obama's economic policies. In recent months, job growth numbers have been disappointing and the nation's unemployment rate, while down slightly, remains at 9.5 percent.

In his remarks to the employees, Obama predicted that companies like the one in Kansas City will move more quickly than people expect to produce a new generation of electric vehicles and the jobs to go with them. He said his administration, shortly after taking office, had made "difficult decisions at a moment of maximum peril."

"One of those decisions was to provide critical funding to promising, innovative businesses like Smith Electric vehicles," he said. "And because we did, there is a thriving enterprise here instead of an empty, darkened warehouse."

Republicans in Washington have been critical of the president's stimulus spending, saying the nearly $800 billion legislation has not had the effect that Obama promised. But Obama told the employees that those arguments would take the country backward.

Just a few months ago, the presidential visits would not have gotten quite the billing that they are receiving this week. Carnahan, who is running for an open Senate seat, kept Obama at arm's length when he made an earlier trip to Missouri -- attending a meeting in Washington rather than flying home to be photographed with the president, whose approval rating in her state is relatively low.

And on Obama's last swing through Nevada, Reid, the Senate majority leader, was considered in such poor political health that even a presidential visit might not do much good.

These days, Reid's odds appear much better in his race against Angle, a "tea party" favorite who won the Republican primary in Nevada last month.

And although Carnahan is still locked in a very close race against her opponent, Blunt, Democratic officials have expressed optimism that she is exceeding expectations, given the disdain for Democratic control of Washington that they are detecting elsewhere. Carnahan and Blunt are vying for the Senate seat that will be vacated by retiring Sen. Christopher S. "Kit" Bond (R).

Kornblut reported from Washington.

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