President Obama searches for the right message

Aaron Guerrero Contributor
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Faced with a rout at the ballot box in November, President Obama and congressional Democrats are running out of both time and options for turning the tide.

Conventional wisdom has the cake already baked. And disillusioned Democrats have slowly resigned themselves to the idea that the House is as good as gone, with control of the Senate possibly hanging in the balance.

Considering the tough circumstances Democrats face, it’s much easier to write them off than give them a chance. Yes, they will lose seats. The current political climate coupled with historical trends makes it not a question of “if” but of “how many.”  But if Obama and his allies can settle on a clear and focused message, they may be able to stem the tide just enough to maintain their congressional majorities.

All year long Democrats have test driven a series of negative narratives aimed at both stalling Republican momentum and firing up a less than enthusiastic base. The narratives have ranged from: branding Republicans as an unreflective bunch who long for the days of the Bush presidency; as a party whose obstructive tendencies are equally matched by its lack of ideas; as a party all too willing to do Wall Street’s bidding; and as a party beholden to the most fringe elements of the Tea Party.

The endless campaign to discredit and delegitimize Republicans has been largely ineffective in moving the needle.

Imparting some political wisdom from on high, former President Bill Clinton told Politico last week that President Obama had not done enough to fight back against the “conservative caricature” of his policies. And Bubba didn’t stop there, advising Obama to “[turn] the argument back on Republican ideas — such as undoing the recent overhaul of Wall Street regulation and overturning even the most popular parts of health reform.”

Judging by early reports previewing his stump speeches this week, Obama seems to be taking Clinton’s advice to heart.

In a four-state tour this week, which includes stops in New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Virginia, Obama plans to hit hard at the GOP’s recently unveiled “Pledge to America,” highlighting the Republicans’ desire to “gut” student loans and their intention to institute a privatized version of Social Security and Medicare, big political no-no’s with the elderly.

Scrutinizing the GOP’s “Pledge” is smart politics. By putting out a menu of ideas, Republicans have allowed Obama to finally play offense. For months, Republicans have been able to cast Obama’s policies and agenda in the worst possible light; now he gets the chance to return the favor.

If the president can raise enough doubt in voters’ minds, he may get them to think twice before pulling the lever for the GOP. True, a majority of the country is in a throw-the-bums-out state of mind, and at the moment the bums running everything in Washington happen to have a capital D at the end of their name.

But the public isn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of returning Republicans to the levers of power. An Associated Press-GfK poll released last week found that while 60 percent of Americans disapprove of the performance of congressional Democrats, a whopping 68 percent dislike how Republicans are performing.

Unfortunately for Democrats, the same poll showed a wide enthusiasm gap between the parties’ rank and file, with Republican voters chomping at the bit to get to the polls.

Obama will seek to rectify the enthusiasm disparity this week when he hits the college campus circuit to speak to what was a key voting bloc in the 2008 election. Undoubtedly, he will try to impress upon young voters the importance of what their votes meant last time and what they can still mean this time.

In addition to advising Obama to draw more attention to the Republican agenda, Clinton noted that Obama “must be optimistic about our future, without being…naïve.” In 2008, Obama mastered this down to a fine science. He was able to inspire legions through a powerful optimism that featured sunny promises of “hope” and “change,” while offering a substantive critique and dismissal of the Bush presidency.

With this blend of optimist-in-chief and hard-charging critic, Obama may finally have the proper formula for delivering what has eluded Democrats all year long: a compelling message.

Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer.