In search of approval for his party and himself

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010; A1

IN LAS VEGAS Barack Obama remembers how good it used to be to be Barack Obama. He only wishes everyone else would remember, too.

"I understand how some of you might think back to election night or inauguration night when Beyoncé was singing and Bono," the president told a crowd of 10,000 in Seattle on Thursday. "And you were saying, boy, that was exciting, that was fun, that was a big party. And now it just seems like we're working all the time and folks are arguing and everybody is mad. All these pundits are on TV. And this is just kind of discouraging."

Obama journeyed west this week on a final five-state scramble before the midterm elections in search of money for his party and votes for endangered Democratic candidates. His voice hoarse from a brewing head cold, he has gone from Oregon to Washington to California to Nevada. On Saturday, he finishes his tour in Minnesota. His speeches have been filled with Obama-esque word pictures, and his tone has been relentlessly upbeat. He has revived many of his lines from 2008.

Yes, "Yes We Can!" is back. And Obama is still "Fired Up!"

Yet if his speeches before the friendliest of faces are a reflection of his mood, the president is also retracing his steps in hopes of finding something he has lost: the adoration of the American people.

His public approval ratings have dropped 18 points since Inauguration Day, and in his exhortations to the crowds, a bit of weariness and an unmistakable note of nostalgia seeps in at the edges.

"I need you to keep on believing. I need you to keep on hoping," Obama told an audience of 37,500 at the University of Southern California on Friday, to applause and cheers. He made the case that if his 2008 supporters turn out again Nov. 2, "We are going to restore the American dream for not just some, but for every, every, everybody in this great land."

Another backyard chat

Between speeches, Obama's staff arranged for him to break out of the presidential bubble, up to a point. He motorcaded through closed-off Seattle streets Thursday for one of his now-common backyard chats, this one at the modest home of Erik and Cynthia Foss - Democrats with a friend who left local government to work in the administration.

Secret Service agents and White House staffers practically lived in the Foss house for a week before the president arrived, plotting the route, securing the neighborhood and seeing to the hundreds of details that go along with a presidential visit.

Cynnie Foss, a volunteer services manager at a local hospital, thought it would be nice to prepare tea for the president. Instead, the agents took over her kitchen and brewed the pot of Earl Grey themselves.

The little Foss girls, Anna, 8, and Elsa, 5, wanted to give Obama presents for his daughters, Malia, 12, and Sasha, 9. So Cynnie went to a neighbor who made jewelry and together they designed bracelets for the first daughters. They were strung with glass beads and pearls, little silver charms with the girls' initials and other charms in the shape of Washington state, musical notes and dog paws.

When Obama arrived, Cynnie greeted him at the door. She had pre-approved a presidential hug. "I was told I could hug him, and I was told he was a hugger, which is great because I'm a hugger, too," she said in a phone interview later that night.

The president settled into a brown couch that the Fosses had purchased on Craigslist. He sipped his tea. Cynnie placed a bowl of red apples on the coffee table. Obama keeps apples in the Oval Office. Anna and Elsa presented the bracelets.

"That's nice," Obama said. "Really sweet. I need to get your address, because they're going to want to thank you."

Then, in a moment of calm after the press corps cameras were hustled in and out of the living room, Elsa, who had recently learned the Pledge of Allegiance in kindergarten, muscled up the courage to recite it for the president.

"She got shy," Cynnie said. "She whispered it and he leaned his head down to listen."

Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, said Obama looks forward to these trips. "He likes getting out of Washington and getting back out there. He relishes that." But Pfeiffer added: "It's not like he longs for the campaign in a nostalgic kind of way. . . . This idea that everyone is moping around the White House is totally not true."

Return to campaign mode

Then it was back to the big stage. U2 on the loudspeakers; teleprompter cued up. It's Republicans driving the car into the ditch and don't give them the keys back and yes we can.

Tanisha Brooks, 36, a public school teacher's assistant and gospel singer, was waiting with the other members of her choir to perform the national anthem. It was her third time singing before an Obama speech.

"It was exciting the first time," Brooks said, "but now, it's like, Oh, we're doing it again."

Obama's ditch metaphor, now well-worn, takes on a new twist in every city.

In Portland, where he was campaigning with Sen. Ron Wyden and congressmen Jeff Merkley, David Wu and Earl Blumenauer: "Oregon, imagine the Republicans driving a car into the ditch. And it's a deep ditch. And so we decided, well, we got to go get that car out of the ditch. And so me and Wyden and Merkley and Wu and Blumenauer and the Democrats, we went down there, we put on our boots. It was muddy down there. It's hot. There are bugs everywhere."

In Seattle, with Sen. Patty Murray: "So Patty and I show up at the scene of the accident. . . . And Patty, even though she's small, she's tough, so she's pushing hard. She's pushing. And even though I'm skinny, I'm pretty tough, so I'm pushing."

And in Los Angeles with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.): "Barbara and I, we put on our boots, and we rappel down into the ditch. And it's muddy and hot. And there are bugs there. And we're pushing on this car, trying to get it out of the ditch - pushing and pushing. And even though Barbara is small, she's tough. So she's pushing."

The Republicans, of course, are up on the road waving, sometimes sipping Slurpees. "Suddenly, we get this tap on our shoulders, and we look back," Obama said in Seattle. "Who is it? It's the Republicans. And they say, 'We want the keys back.' And you can't have the keys back. You don't know how to drive."

Every time, the audience erupts in laughter. But what draws the loudest applause are the lines Obama made famous in the 2008 campaign and is reusing now.

"We believe in a country that says, 'I am my brother's keeper, and I am my sister's keeper,' " Obama said in Seattle to cheers. "That's the America I know. That's the America Patty knows. That's the choice in this election."

Heidi Schor, 46, a writer, volunteered for Obama in 2008. "I even threw an inaugural ball for him at my house," Schor said. But as she stood waiting for Obama to take the stage in Seattle, she said her own enthusiasm has fallen. "It's way down compared to 2008," Schor said. "Life is hard right now. And Congress and legislative reality is just disillusioning. Politics is just disillusioning."

On Friday afternoon, Obama headed to Las Vegas. Another rally. Another senator. But this time, the stakes seemed higher. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid is the most endangered of the three western incumbents. And hours before Obama arrived, it seemed ominous. Rain was falling in the Nevada desert. The grassy middle school playing field where the rally was to be held turned muddy.

And yet, as Air Force One rumbled toward Las Vegas, the storm passed. The sun emerged. The advance staff had done its work. When Obama arrived at his next stop, the people stood waiting to show their love.

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