Obama's rescue mission in Madison

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 11:33 AM

When President Obama steps onto the stage Tuesday evening at the University of Wisconsin, it will be back to the future. But for how long?

The Madison rally likely will be a feel-good moment for Obama and those around him, a reminder of the glory days of 2008, when he drew 20,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 people in the closing weeks of the presidential campaign.

But will Madison be remembered as the beginning of a Democratic rebound that could save the House and Senate from falling into Republican hands on Nov. 2 or just a fleeting moment of good music and stirring rhetoric in a bleak year for the White House?

At this time two years ago, Obama had locked up the presidency. He had just come off his first debate with Sen. John McCain, widely seen as an Obama victory, and had out-performed his rival during the economic meltdown that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Everything was breaking in his direction.

Today he is a more embattled figure. If September and October of 2008 were a time of cruising to victory, the next five weeks look like a long, hard slog toward an uncertain and potentially disappointing finish.

Obama is still loved by many of those who cheered him on in 2008, but the bonds between Obama and his party's base have been strained by economic hard times and the challenges of governing.

He can no longer go everywhere to campaign, as he could before - his policies are that controversial. He is no longer the post-partisan politician, thanks to the partisan wars of the past two years. United Republican opposition to his policies has pushed him into the most partisan posture of his presidency.

Signs of trouble are all about. Those first-time voters who rallied behind the youthful Obama two years ago have returned to normal patterns, which is to say many see no particular reason to come out and vote in November. Democrats need more of them to turn out this year than in a normal midterm election if they are to hold back the Republican tide.

The party's progressive wing has cooled on the president. Disappointment with his governing choices has become a low-grade fever within the party. Most will vote, but with less enthusiasm.

White House frustration is evident, with more signs this week that the president and those around him feel they're not getting a fair shake from the wing of the party that helped catapult him to the nomination.

Vice President Biden vented on Monday while in New Hampshire. "Stop whining," he opined to those who wanted a public option in health care or who opposed the president's escalation in Afghanistan.

The irrepressible vice president is a human barometer of the White House mood, but he is not the only one around the president who has let his or her feelings boil over. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs admonished "the professional left" a few weeks ago.

The president's advisers privately wonder why the left hasn't cut Obama more slack, given all the criticism that has been heaped on him from conservatives who claim he has moved the country toward socialism.

Obama is normally cool and unruffled. But in a Rolling Stone interview out Tuesday morning, he too took a hard line toward those who may be sitting on their hands politically. Staying home, he told the magazine's editor, Jann Wenner, would be "inexcusable" and "irresponsible."

"People need to shake off this lethargy," he said. "People need to buck up. If people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren't serious in the first place."

Family squabbles are normal, particular when things aren't going well. Everyone wants to blame someone else. Obama's challenge over the next five weeks will be to persuade everyone to put aside those family differences and confront the bigger reality, which is that they are going to have less power come January than they've had. The only issue is how much less, and the next five weeks will help determine that.

The Republican base is ready and energized. This is a time when the Democratic base may be starting to coalesce. Democrats coming home will be the mantra of the party strategists, and Obama's task, starting in Madison, will be to accelerate and intensify that movement.

He walks a fine line in doing so. For now, Obama's party is counting on him to lead the charge. Only he, they say, has the megaphone or the magic to bring out the biggest possible vote. But the politics of attack has never been his natural pose. Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, coined a phrase Monday, asserting that Obama has gone from post-partisan to most-partisan.

Gillespie is no stranger to hardball partisan politics and is on the front lines of helping Republicans maximize their gains this fall. Who is he to talk, Democrats may say. But he managed to identify one risk for Obama as he heads into the final weeks of the campaign, which is how to balance being president of all the people and the party's lead attacker in the campaign.

Perhaps that is why Obama and his team show their frustrations. He has fought the fight against recession and in favor of a major overhaul of health care and financial regulation. But still the party seems lethargic. What more can he do?

The answers will begin to show in Madison and on other stages through the coming weeks as Obama once again tries to re-create the best of times for his party and himself.

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