Obama's Not On The Ballot, But ...

The closer you look at any of the contests on Tuesday's election slate, the less they have to do with President Obama. But when the votes are counted, you can count on hearing his name more often than any other.

Even widely scattered votes in an off year are routinely treated as referendums on the president, whether he has been close to any of the candidates or not. Whether he campaigns for them a little or a lot, his brand is inevitably affixed and its value reassessed.

That is how it has always been, and how it very likely will always be. And it is all the more so when a president is new and still riding some of the historic personal wave that carried him into office one year ago.

Moreover, this particular new president is young and extraordinarily ambitious, thrilling a generation of new voters and instilling anxiety in many of their elders. That was true a year ago, and it remains true in polling today. His vision has inspired both admiration and fierce resistance.

So the name of Obama is a flash point of strong feelings, far more than the names of the candidates actually running for office this week. The people in Virginia or New Jersey may know the names of their candidates for governor; the rest of the country does not. Everyone, however, will recognize the name Obama, and that is where the conversation will turn.

It also happens that the one commonality across states and localities voting this week is voter dissatisfaction, driven by recession and unemployment and, in some cases, by fear of expanding government and debt. Ask yourself: Which emotion drives more votes, approval or anger?

A year ago, the anger tended to cut against Republicans after eight years of the presidency of George W. Bush. This year, for many, the polarity is reversed.

If you live in a place where important votes are being taken, the national aspect of the vote may seem remote — if not irrelevant. Virginia's new governor will probably be Bob McDonnell, its state attorney general, who is leading a little-known Democratic legislator who never offered much of a platform and held his own national party at arm's length. The party holding the White House has seen Virginia choose a governor from the other party in every election for more than 30 years.

But that's not a very compelling story line beyond Virginia, so look for a lot of projection about what McDonnell means for the fate of the parties nationally.

In New Jersey, the irritants are the highest local property taxes in the country and a broadly shared disappointment with the incumbent governor, Democrat Jon Corzine. His two rivals are probably splitting an overwhelming vote of rejection. That's the story. But you can bet you'll hear it cast in terms of Barack Obama.

In the final days before this November's contests, attention has shifted to a highly unusual contest in upstate New York, a district Republicans have held since the Civil War. When longtime incumbent John McHugh became secretary of the Army, the GOP county chairs chose as their nominee for the seat he vacated a state legislator named Dede Scozzafava, hoping her moderate-to-liberal views would appeal to independents.

That provoked a rebellion on the right, benefiting Doug Hoffman, who had the ballot line for the New York Conservative Party. Activists from around the country, including Sarah Palin from Alaska and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey from Texas, rallied to Hoffman. It got ugly enough that Scozzafava dropped out, three days before the election, and endorsed Democratic nominee Bill Owens.

That's a complicated story having much to do with the ferment taking place on the right. But once again, the involvement of national leaders and presidential candidates will put a White House spin on it all.

Unless you live where the voting takes place, you fall back on what you know. Those who pay any attention at all on election night will glance up at the scoreboard and hear commentary on what the results say about Barack Obama. Does he have the kind of star power that transfers to other candidates? Has he pushed the public support for himself and his program to the point of pushback?

And however small the president's role has actually been this fall, the focus on him is fair in one sense. The results of these elections will affect him. They will make his struggles in Washington a tad easier, or more difficult, depending on how they change the political conversation.

That is how analysis, like prophecy, can become self-fulfilling.

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