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Obama raises stakes and redefines debate for the midterm election

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By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Thursday, September 9, 2010

President Obama decided this week to raise the stakes in this fall's election by making the choice about something instead of nothing but anger.

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In the process, he will confront a deeply embedded media narrative that sees a Republican triumph as all but inevitable. Paradoxically, such extravagant expectations may be the GOP's biggest problem -- by raising the bar for what will constitute success and by discouraging necessary strategic adjustments if our newly combative president begins to alter the political battlefield.

Until Obama's Labor Day speech in Milwaukee and his statement of principles Wednesday near Cleveland, it was not clear how much heart he had in the fight or whether he would ever offer a comprehensive argument for the advantage of his party's approach.

In the absence of a coherent case, Republicans were winning by default on a wave of protest votes. Without this new effort at self-definition, Obama was a blur: a socialist to conservatives, a sellout to some progressives, and a disappointment to younger Americans who wondered what happened to the ebullient, hopeful guy they voted for.

That's why the Milwaukee-Cleveland one-two punch mattered. The first speech showed Obama could fight and enjoy himself in the process. The second speech spelled out why he has chosen to do battle.

The news headline was Obama's decision to draw the line on George W. Bush's tax cuts. He would continue the most economically stimulative cuts for families earning less than $250,000 a year but say no to extending the rest of the tax cuts that, as Obama noted, "would have us borrow $700 billion over the next 10 years to give a tax cut of about $100,000 to folks who are already millionaires." What do Democrats stand for if they are not willing to take on this cause?

But even more, Wednesday's speech in Parma, Ohio, showed Obama speaking openly about the philosophical underpinnings of his presidency by way of explaining where he would lead the country.

"I've never believed that government has all the answers to our problems," Obama said. "But in the words of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, I also believe that government should do for the people what they cannot do better for themselves." Then he offered examples of what that meant, highlighting programs Americans believe in, as an antidote to empty and abstract anti-government rhetoric.

Suddenly, there's a point to this election. Obama is late to this game, but at least he's finally playing it.

The New Obama (or, rather, the resurrected Old Obama) will be up against a media story line whose self-sustaining quality was brought home by the treatment of Gallup poll findings over the past two months.

The media largely ignored a mid-July survey giving Democrats a six-point lead, then devoted huge blocks of print and airtime to last week's Gallup survey dramatizing conventional wisdom by showing Republicans ahead by a whopping 10 points -- only to have Gallup come out this week with a poll showing Republicans and Democrats tied. All this raises the question of whether the only polls that matter are ones that reinforce preconceptions.

Even Democrats concede that a Republican sweep may be in the cards. But there is another possibility: that we are now at the Republican peak and that Democrats are in a position to claw back enough support to hang on to both houses of Congress.

Republican voters can't get more enthusiastic without violating the law by casting multiple ballots. Democrats, on the other hand, have a large swath of yet-to-be motivated sympathizers. For Republicans, the costs of Tea Party extremism are beginning to balance the benefits of the movement's energy.

Republican pollster David Winston thinks the economy has given his party "an enormous opening," but he cautions against seeing the contest as over and done with. As a technical matter, he argues that likely-voter screens applied by pollsters too early exclude a disproportionate number of voters in key Democratic constituencies.

And the economic debate Obama tried to reframe this week, Winston said, "is going to have an impact. It's not enough for Obama to be wrong. If Republicans want to get to a majority, they have to lay out where they want to go."

Yes, Republicans had better start defining themselves. If they don't, Obama, who labeled them the party of "stagnant growth, eroding competitiveness and a shrinking middle class," is happy to do it for them. That's what changed in Milwaukee and Cleveland.

ejdionne@washpost.com


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