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Obama isn't ducking role in election reprise of '94

He's also in search of something he has lost: the adoration of the American people.

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Get out your Wonderbras and your "Forrest Gump" videocassettes. It's starting to feel like 1994 all over again.

The Democratic president's approval rating now, as then, is a lowly 44 percent. His party is forecast to lose about 50 seats in the House and eight in the Senate -- about the same as in '94. Voters now, as then, are in a sour mood, and some Democrats are again afraid of being photographed with the unpopular president.

But the strangest similarity may be in President Obama's speeches. As he barnstorms the country in these closing days before the midterms, he has borrowed Bill Clinton's 1994 stump speech -- in some cases, word for word.

"It's up to you to remember that this election is a choice," Obama said in a recent speech. "It's a choice between the past and the future; a choice between hope and fear; a choice between falling backwards and moving forwards. And I don't know about you, but I want to move forward. I don't want to go backward."

Compare that to this common Clinton passage from '94: "Ladies and gentlemen, this election, all over America, represents a choice, a choice between hope and fear . . . between whether we're going forward or we're going to go back. I think I know the answer to that. You want to keep going forward."

Obama has even extended Clinton's automotive metaphor of '94. Clinton's model: "You know, if you drive your car and there's a lot of stuff on the windshield, you could think it's dark outside when the sun shining. . . . That's what they've done. They've put a lot of dirt on America's windshield. We got to clean it off between now and Tuesday. Will you help? Will you do your part? Will you go forward? . . . Think about it like this: Every one of you is in the driver's seat."

In Obama's model, Republicans drove a car into a ditch and were "kicking dirt down into the ditch, kicking dirt in our faces, but we kept on pushing. Finally we got this car up on level ground. And, yes, it's a little beat up. . . . But it's pointing in the right direction. And now we've got the Republicans tapping us on the shoulder, saying, 'we want the keys back.' You can't have the keys back. You don't know how to drive. You can ride with us if you want, but you got to sit in the back seat. We're going to put middle-class America in the front seat. . . . I'm going forwards, with all of you."

It's a sad irony for Obama that history is rhyming so closely. The man who set out to change politics as we know it, and who endeavored to avoid Clinton's mistakes, now finds himself reliving one of the lowest moments of that presidency. As Forrest Gump's mom liked to say, "Life is like a box of chocolates. . . ."

But Obama, to his credit, is not hiding from the rebuke his presidency is about to suffer. He and his advisers have accepted that Tuesday's results will be seen universally as a referendum on his leadership, and he has been highly visible on the campaign trail.

During the summer, Democrats maintained an all-politics-is-local response when asked whether Nov. 2 would be an Obama referendum. But the referendum can no longer be denied. In a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll this month, 29 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports Obama and 31 percent said they would be more likely to oppose such a candidate, easily outnumbering the 38 percent who said Obama wasn't a factor.

In that environment, Obama can't hide -- and he hasn't tried to. He's done 69 fundraisers so far this year and 12 political rallies, with five more scheduled in the coming days. That, according to statistics compiled by Mark Knoller of CBS News, will put him slightly ahead of the 15 rallies a struggling George W. Bush did in 2006.

This isn't a breathless pace (Bill Clinton has done 107 events for candidates this year), but Obama's criss-crossing of the country, from Florida to Oregon and from Nevada to Massachusetts, is an acknowledgment that he is, in all ways but the literal, on the ballot.

Clinton jetted off to the Middle East for a five-day trip just days before the 1994 election -- and he got all the blame anyway. Obama may be destined to repeat Clinton's history, but at least he hasn't surrendered to it.

danamilbank@washpost.com


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