By Anne E. Kornblut
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; A2
MADISON, WIS. - President Obama delivered an impassioned argument to young voters Tuesday night, declaring that the changes he promised in 2008 are underway and that "now is not the time to give up."
Trying to recapture the enthusiasm that catapulted him into office, Obama returned to the proven format of a large college campus to launch a pre-election push for fellow Democrats. Speaking to what was once one of his most fervent fan bases - students - he unleashed a string of dire warnings about Republican control, arguing that his opponents are banking on Democratic indifference to return to power.
"The biggest mistake we could make is to let disappointment or frustration lead to apathy . . . that is how the other side wins," Obama said. "If the other side does win, they will spend the next two years fighting for the very same policies that led to this recession in the first place."
The staging, complete with supporters waving "Moving America Forward" signs and a performance by the musician Ben Harper, evoked the generational enthusiasm of rallies past.
It was in Madison in February 2008 where Obama solidified his standing with the youth vote. He held a huge rally at the 17,000-seat Kohl Center just before his victory in the state's caucuses propelled him into lead for the Democratic nomination.
Despite the dramatic shifts in his popularity since then, Obama drew an impressive crowd, making it easily his largest event since his inauguration 20 months ago.
Madison police estimated that more than 26,000 guests filled Library Mall, a grassy quad between university buildings, and the surrounding areas. More supporters lined the motorcade route, another scene reminiscent of the presidential campaign.
The mood was upbeat but controlled; there was little of the Obama hysteria that defined his 2008 appearances. Until shortly before the event began, it was not clear whether Sen. Russell Feingold, the most prominent Wisconsin Democrat on the ballot, would appear with the president.
But Feingold did show, dismissing the idea of an enthusiasm gap between the parties. Obama picked up the theme, announcing to the crowd at the outset that he was "fired up" - another 2008 echo.
Then, with his sleeves rolled up and his shirt unbuttoned at the top, Obama rolled out a rollicking 45-minute campaign speech. He defended his record, joked with the crowd and challenged the conventional wisdom that Democrats are going to lose in November.
"The prediction among the pundits is, there's going to be a bloodletting for Democrats. That's what they're saying in Washington," Obama said, drawing boos. "And the basis of their prediction is that all of you who worked so hard in 2008 aren't going to be as energized, aren't going to be as engaged."
He continued: "Wisconsin, we can't let that happen. We cannot sit this one out. We can't let this country fall backward because the rest of us didn't care enough to fight."
Obama has auditioned on various stages in recent weeks as he has struggled to find a compelling venue to convey his message. He held an East Room news conference, delivered an Oval Office address, attended several backyard parties - including one on Tuesday in Albuquerque - and gave lengthy interviews, most recently with NBC and Rolling Stone.
In returning to such a large-scale event, Obama was sure to provoke comparisons with 2008, both good and bad. While it was the thousands of screaming supporters who made his early presidential ambitions possible, his rock-star status also evolved into a trait Republicans tried to use against him, accusing him of being a "celebrity" and unable to do anything other than make eloquent speeches.
His advisers believe his central problem is neither the medium nor the message but the hard reality of a flat economy. They think they can motivate a certain percentage of their base to vote in the midterms by reminding them of what's at stake.
Another source of concern, and irritation, for the White House has been the disaffection of liberals who complain that the president has not moved fast or forcefully enough on some of his campaign promises. Obama and other senior officials have begun pushing back with increasing conviction.
In the Rolling Stone interview, which advisers acknowledged Obama conducted in part to appeal to young voters, he all but scolded Democrats for their lack of excitement.
"When I talk to Democrats around the country, I tell them, 'Guys, wake up here. We have accomplished an incredible amount in the most adverse circumstances imaginable,' " Obama said, according to the article.
This week, Vice President Biden said it is important to remind the Democrats' base constituency "to stop whining and get out there and look at the alternatives."
The Madison rally was one of four campus events Obama will headline leading up to the midterms. On Tuesday, five other events were held, including one featuring Biden at Penn State University, to amplify the president's message.
At the Albuquerque event earlier in the day, Obama talked about education and the economy and fielded a question about what makes him a Christian. He told the questioner that it is "because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead - being my brothers' and sisters' keeper, treating others as they would treat me."