President Obama and Democratic strategists have tried a variety of techniques to stop the apparent Republican surge in this fall's campaigns. They attempted to make House Minority Leader John Boehner the scary symbol of obstructionism as the next speaker of the House if the GOP takes control. But few voters paid attention. Obama warned that the GOP has no new ideas for solving the nation's problems. But voters tuned him out. For a while, Tea Party conservatives were the target as examples of right-wing extremism. But these attacks failed to slow GOP momentum. Polls indicate that the Democrats are on the verge of losing their majority in the House and possibly in the Senate in the midterm elections on November 2.
As a result, Obama and the Democratic National Committee have turned to the only strategy they have left—trying to rev up the party's base and get as many Democrats to the polls as possible through tactics of attack and alarm.
One target is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a nemesis of the left that is spending vast amounts of money to push the Democrats from power. The battle with the chamber heated up this week as Obama and his allies questioned whether the business group was using foreign money to wage war on the Democrats. White House officials offered no proof, and chamber spokesmen said the allegation was false. Chamber leaders went on to defend their political campaign as a legitimate effort to represent business in public debate. Other targets are Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, prominent GOP strategists who were senior White House advisers to President George W. Bush. Many Democrats see them as behind-the-scenes manipulators trying to hurt Obama and his party with their own fund-raising efforts.
But Gillespie told me that Obama won't get traction with such attacks. "Most people in America don't think of the Chamber of Commerce as a place on H Street in Washington but as a place on Main Street in their hometown," he says. He adds that he and Rove may stir up the left but that what's bothering most Americans, including independent swing voters who could decide many races, is the economy, especially unemployment. And it's very possible that the Democratic attacks on the left's bugaboos will have little resonance with everyday people who are worried about their financial future and who oppose the status quo.
But Obama and the Democrats are forging ahead with their campaign to generate turnout in the Democratic base. The president is campaigning as much as possible among young people, African-Americans, and urban voters, all of whom gave him strong support in 2008. He appeared this week before an enthusiastic audience at George Washington University, and he has scheduled a number of rallies, including one in Las Vegas on October 22. The DNC is planning a special effort to turn out black voters and has increased its budget for that purpose from $2 million to $3 million, mostly for ads on radio, online, in print, and on television.
"It's going to be all hands on deck, seven days a week," right through Election Day, says DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse. The goal is to convince Democrats that Obama needs as much Democratic support in Congress as he can get, and that Republican gains would set the country back. "This election is important to the president and his success," Woodhouse says.
Obama has been blunt in making his appeal. Before a mostly black audience in Philadelphia on October 10, he said: "I'm back here two years later because our job is not yet done and the success of our mission is at stake right now. On November 2nd, I need you as fired up as you were in 2008, because we've got a lot of work ahead of us. . . . Of course people are frustrated. Of course people are impatient with the pace of change. And believe me, so am I. . . . No matter how angry you get, no matter how frustrated you are, the other side has decided to ride that frustration and anger without offering any solutions."
The White House apparently is gambling that the November elections will be a battle of the bases—hard-core conservatives versus hard-core liberals—with most other Americans sitting on the sidelines. If that's the case, going with the current strategy of trying to energize Democrats makes sense. But there is a danger. If the attacks on the chamber and other Democratic villains seem like inside-Washington game-playing that is irrelevant to most people's concerns, such as unemployment, then Obama might seem out of touch and the Democrats will probably suffer big losses across the country.