Democrats Say Election Is Not a Referendum on Obama

The GOP is portraying Democrats as the party of reckless spending.

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Political strategists in Washington are debating whether the November elections will be a referendum on President Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress. If so, chances are that the "in party" will take some huge hits, and perhaps lose its majority on Capitol Hill. If voters don't make it a referendum, the Democrats may limit the losses that a party in power usually suffers in midterm balloting.

The Republicans are honing their themes for the fall contests. GOP leaders such as Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky portray Obama and the Democrats as the party of reckless spending and an ever-more-powerful government, while the GOP is the party of fiscal prudence, common sense, and less government. The GOP, in short, wants to make the elections a quasi-plebiscite that forces Democrats to defend their actions.

The Democrats, however, argue that the election should emphasize the contrast between what the Democrats are doing and what the Republicans would, and would not, do if they took power. "This election is going to be about a choice," Tim Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told reporters last week. "One party put the economy into a ditch, stood by and watched it collapse, not really willing to pull the ripcord on the parachute. The president has come and taken bold action" and is turning the economy around. Kaine kicked off the DNC's $50 million fall campaign last week by announcing that the party will pay special attention to mobilizing millions of voters who turned out for Obama in 2008, especially new voters, young people, women, African-Americans, Latinos, and centrist independents.

The GOP's agreement to open Senate debate on a financial-overhaul bill seemed designed to undercut Kaine's arguments. After blocking the legislation in three procedural votes, the GOP relented and allowed floor debate to begin on the measure, which by all indications will eventually pass. This will enable Republican leaders to say that they held out to improve the bill, and their more accommodating approach shows that they are looking for compromise and aren't committed to mindless obstruction.

The Democrats have some other ammunition. They plan to make former President George W. Bush a key issue, reprising a theme that worked in 2008. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that 59 percent of voters say Bush is "more responsible for the current state of the economy," and only 25 percent say Obama is more responsible. "As long as a majority of the public still blames President Bush for the problems in the economy, we have an opportunity, and almost are duty-bound, to say Bush and the Republicans got us into the predicament to begin with," argues a senior Democratic strategist.

GOP leaders counter that Obama has been president for well over a year and he needs to take responsibility for the economy, not continue to blame his predecessor. And Republican insiders say Bush may get a popularity boost from advance publicity for his new book, Decision Points, due out in November, in which he explains why he made some of his key decisions.

For his part, Obama argues that official Washington is a lot more polarized than the rest of America. Returning from a Midwestern trip last week, he told reporters on Air Force One: "I think it's a less toxic atmosphere, where people are genuinely concerned about jobs, or they've got serious questions about how the new healthcare bill is going to work or what's happening with immigration or other issues. But generally, I think what people are looking for is that their elected officials think about them first and foremost and are working hard. And they realize that some of these problems are hard, that they're not going to be solved overnight. They just want to make sure that we're working on their behalf and not on behalf of either some ideological agenda or special interest in Washington."

Of course, there will be other developments between now and the elections. Obama is expected to nominate a new Supreme Court justice soon, which could precipitate a new partisan donnybrook. Voters may solidify their views of the new healthcare law, to the benefit of one party or the other. The unemployment rate will remain a major barometer of voter anger.