By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 10:21 PM
President Obama plans to return to the campaign trail in a big way this fall, with four major rallies planned in the crucial states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada, as well as a "tele-town hall" in which he will talk to core supporters at thousands of gatherings across the country and over the Internet.
The events are designed to evoke the good ol' days of 2008. To many Democrats and the liberal faithful, the sight of Obama in full cry back on the stump will be a glimmer of light in an otherwise dim election season.
Obama's appearance in Cleveland on Wednesday felt much more like a rally than the economic policy speech it was billed as. In his address, he attacked Republican criticism of his economic policies.
That kind of campaigning is precisely what Democrats on Capitol Hill have been begging him to do, arguing that no one is better than Obama at laying out the distinctions between their party and the GOP. They also say he is their best hope for revving up the party's dispirited liberal base.
But is any of this likely to help the Democrats in November?
A lesson from not-so-distant history may give them pause.
Clinton later regarded the stumping as a mistake: "My campaign riffs were effective for the party faithful, but not for the larger audience who saw them on television; on TV, the hot campaign rhetoric turned a statesman-like president back into the politician the voters weren't sure about."
Some Clinton-era veterans worry that Obama might be making a similar misstep now, and point to his decision to go to Cleveland, where House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) gave his own economic speech a week before.
"Did anyone in America even know that Boehner had given a speech?" one Clinton White House strategist asked.
Obama slammed Boehner's remarks, saying they offered "the same philosophy that led to this mess in the first place: Cut more taxes for millionaires and cut more rules for corporations."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who would have to turn over her gavel to Boehner if Republicans win back the House in November, touted Obama's speech as a message to voters. The president "delivered a clear choice for Americans today: the Democratic vision for a stronger economy and a growing middle class versus the Republican plan to take us back to the exact same failed Bush policies of the past, cutting taxes for the wealthiest 2 percent, huge deficits and fewer jobs," Pelosi said.
Huffington Post Editor Arianna Huffington, speaking Wednesday on MSNBC's "Countdown With Keith Olbermann," said: "This was definitely the best speech we've gotten from him since he's been in the White House. There's no question that he drew a clear line in the sand. It was really more like a moat that he filled with man-eating crocodiles."
Obama remains more popular than congressional Democrats, but Clinton's experience suggests that approval may not be transferable - and that it could actually hurt the party if the president starts looking like just another politician.
Clinton's approval rating had risen above 50 percent, he wrote in his memoir, but adviser Dick Morris warned against taking that popularity on the road.
As the former president recalled, Morris told him that "I should stay off the campaign trail and remain 'presidential,' saying and doing things that would reinforce my higher ratings. Morris believed that would do more to help the Democrats than my plunging back into the political fray."
Clinton tried to do that, but "I was surprised to find my schedule packed with trips to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Rhode Island, New York, Iowa, Minnesota, California, Washington and Delaware."
He also wrote, "Going back on the campaign trail, while understandable and perhaps unavoidable, was a mistake." That misjudgment was confirmed on Election Day, when "we got the living daylights beat out of us."
Obama's first rally will be on Sept. 28 in Madison, Wis., and will focus on young voters. The other events will be in October in Philadelphia, an unnamed site in Ohio and in Las Vegas.
The election is two months away, and Democrats are already second-guessing the president. But for Obama, as was true for Clinton, there may be no alternative to plunging into the fray when so much is at stake for his party.