Obama, Democrats Locked in a Perpetual Campaign

Republicans are deciding whether to focus on the president or Pelosi and Reid.

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Video: A Perpetual Campaign

Americans are starting their summer vacations, but in Washington it's business as usual. And that business is politics.

President Obama and his Democrats are vying with the Republicans to get every possible advantage in the mid-term elections this November. And while voters probably want a break from politics for a couple of months, the politicians are neck-deep in a perpetual campaign. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

There's a steady stream of E-mails, news releases, political ads, and broadsides emanating from the party headquarters, from the national committees that represent House and Senate candidates, and from all sides on Capitol Hill. And the messages are a return to the familiar themes used by each side for many years. The growing clash is intensified by the closeness of the races. In a recent Gallup tracking poll of voter preferences for Congress, the GOP leads 46 percent to 44 percent, a slight change from the previous week when the Democrats led 45 to 44. With the margin so narrow, each side is pulling out all the stops.

The Republican Study Committee, an arm of House Republicans, is back on the anti-tax theme, attempting to connect it to the all-important unemployment issue. The panel pointed out that 69 percent of Americans believe that tax cuts are a better way to boost employment than government spending, while only 15 percent say government spending is the better answer, according to Rasmussen Reports. This is part of the overall Republican effort to stay firmly associated with tax cuts, a cornerstone of GOP orthodoxy. [See a slide show of hot races to watch.]

The Republicans are still trying to decide whether to focus on attacking Obama as a big-spending, big-government liberal or make the campaign more about Democratic congressional leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who are lightning rods for conservatives. The GOP argument is that the Democrats are adopting ruinous policies by overspending and pushing the government ever more deeply into the economy and into debt. [See where Reid's campaign cash comes from.]

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee is also going back to the future. The DNC unveiled a cable-television ad, part of a larger campaign, to caricature Republican leaders as in the pocket of big corporate interests. The goal is to let voters know, in the most negative way possible, "how Republicans would govern," a DNC spokesman says. Those GOP leaders include Republicans John Boehner of Ohio and Joe Barton of Texas, whom the DNC says would "stick up for Wall Street and Big Oil."

Finally, Obama has been looking more and more like a candidate, even though his name won't be on the ballot this fall. Campaigning for Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan in Kansas City last week, Obama said the current recession is the result of a decade of irresponsible Republican policies. "You cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires who don't need the tax cuts," he said, adding, "You cut rules and regulations for the most powerful institutions...and you cut working people loose to fend for themselves." He said Carnahan "is not going to Washington to represent the oil industry or the insurance industry or the banks on Wall Street" but to represent everyday people from Missouri. Obama's use of populist rhetoric is an attempt to recapture the excitement that he rode into the White House in the 2008 election, but it's a tough sell. A tracking poll from Gallup last week shows that Obama's approval rating nationally has fallen to 44 percent and his disapproval is at 46 percent. But among independents, who will decide many races, it's even worse, with his approval rating at 38 percent, down from 56 percent a year ago.

The problem for Obama is that his core supporters—including young voters, African Americans, and Latinos—aren't motivated to vote this November. His name isn't on the ballot, so many true believers will stay home. For others, Obama's luster has faded because of the recession, unemployment, the Afghanistan war, and other factors. Obama's Justice Department may regain some credibility with the left by suing Arizona over a state immigration law opposed by minority activists as discriminatory, but it will probably take a lot more populism to animate Obama's base. He will surely oblige, Democratic strategists say.