Obama Stumps As Midterm Elections Draw Near

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President Obama spent the weekend pushing forward new initiatives that he believes will help Democrats overcome a steep challenge from Republicans in the fall elections. Republican strategist Ron Christie and Democratic strategist Celinda Lake talk about the President’s potential influence and look ahead to the November elections.

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox. This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin will be back tomorrow.

And we've entered the stretch run toward what some believe could be an historic midterm election. We're going to talk about that in a few moments in a special Tuesday political chat.

Meanwhile, it is only the beginning of the race - the first week or two of the school year for you and your kids. We know you're sending your child off, at least at the start, in an organized manner, but what about your own space at home? Your calendar? The mess in your car? That's a little bit later on.

First, though, the November election. It is less than two months away. And new polls suggest that if Democrats cannot get their voters out to the polls - the voters who helped President Obama and the Democratic surge in 2008 - there could be a huge swing in both the House and Senate toward Republican control.

To talk specifics with us today I'm joined now by Ron Christie, a former aide to President George W. Bush and to Vice President Dick Cheney, now head of Christie Strategies, joining me here in studio in Washington. Also with us, Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist and pollster. She is president of Lake Research Partners. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. RON CHRISTIE (Christie Strategies): Nice to be with you both.

COX: Celinda, you there?

Ms. CELINDA LAKE (Democratic Strategist and Pollster): Nice to be here, thank you.

COX: Oh, there she is. Okay, we wanted to make sure that you are with us, Celinda.

All sorts of major polls out this week. We're going to talk about those in detail. But first, I thought we should talk about the president and hear from him speaking yesterday at a Labor Day rally in Milwaukee.

President BARACK OBAMA: Here's what this election comes down to. They're betting that between now and November, you're going to come down with amnesia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: They figure you're going to forget what their agenda did to this country. They think you'll just believe that they've changed.

COX: So, Celinda, the fiery rhetoric of the campaign is back, isn't it? Isn't that what Obama's Democratic detractors have been clamoring for?

Ms. LAKE: It is, and I think it's what the voters have been clamoring for, as well. They want to know: Where are we headed? What's the nature of the choice? What is your economic framework? And it was good to hear the president as forceful as he was this weekend.

COX: Ron Christie, I suppose from your point of view that rhetoric is fine, but that's all that it really is, is rhetoric.

Mr. CHRISTIE: I think that's right, Tony. I was very disappointed, actually, to hear from the president. The president has been in office for almost two years now. The Democrats have controlled Congress since 2007, and yet the only narrative they wish to take us to is this is what will happen if the Republicans come back. What about health care reform? What about the cap-and-trade bill that they passed? What about a number of the stimulus packages that they've put forth?

I find it ironic that after nearly two years in the office in the White Office - and, of course, for several years in the Congress -they can't run on their record because the American people are very disturbed by the record and the actions they've seen out of the Democrats here in Washington.

COX: You know, the president has announced, Celinda, a push for a new don't-call-it-a-stimulus stimulus package of tax cuts designed to infuse capital into America's small businesses. Now, given Capitol Hill gridlock, it is not likely that anything is going to happen on that legislation before the election this fall. But will it help the president by his just announcing his intent?

Ms. LAKE: Well, I think it helps because one of the major things - one of the major problems, I think, is that we are in the middle of a recession that was produced by eight years of failed policies, and it's a long way back. And you still have 60 percent of the voters saying that the recession is primarily due to Bush policies.

Having said that, I think the president needs to provide for the voters a sense of what his economic narrative is. What is his economic perspective? What is the choice that they really face at this midterm crossroads? And I think he did a very good job of that in Milwaukee.

COX: Ron Christie is not agreeing with you. I can tell by looking at his face.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, I - well, you know, Celinda, if you could see me, again, the eight years looking back, I mean, the Democrats have had control of the Congress for three, so I guess we should criticize the Democrats. But the important thing here is that the $862 billion stimulus bill, which the president, his economic team promised would keep unemployment below 8 percent when it was 6.8 percent, now we find it at 9.6 percent.

And I think the American people, rather than blaming President Bush or blaming a particular party, are looking to their leaders in Washington to come forth with a non-partisan solution to get the economy out of the difficult situation it's in. And I think that's going to be the narrative this fall of which party or which positions are going to take us forward, as opposed to blaming person X or blaming person Y.

COX: Celinda, how are the Democrats going to get beyond that argument? It's something that you hear more and more - not just from Republicans, but also from disaffected Democrats, as well.

Ms. LAKE: Well, I think that, first of all, I think it's a lot easier to critique something than do something about it. And there are very, very clear choices here that have been laid out. And, yes, the Democrats were in control of Congress, but we didn't have the power to get things done. And this - you know, President Bush was a very active president in terms of vetoing things, in terms of blocking things with a filibuster. And many of us believe that there should be changes to those rules, particularly the filibuster, as well.

But the point of the matter is there's a really clear choice. Bush proposed privatizing Social Security. We opposed. The Democrats oppose it. Bush would not close the tax loophole for jobs that go overseas. We've proposed closing it repeatedly. Republicans in Congress have repeatedly voted to keep that tax loophole open. We put strings on the bailout. We limited CEO compensation. We passed Wall Street financial reform. Bush passed a Wall Street reform with no strings attached.

So there are clear differences here in terms of approach and clear differences here in terms of the future of approach. We - you know, it's one thing to talk about small businesses, but it's another thing to actually do something to help them, to get them better credit, to get them tax credits for health insurance, which this administration has done.

So I think the choice is very clear. But I think it's very, very important. The Republicans want to make this a referendum, and it's important that we frame this as a choice.

COX: Once again, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with Republican strategist Ron Christie and Democratic strategist Celinda Lake about the stretch run of the campaign season leading to the November 2nd midterm election. One of the things Celinda has just done, Ron Christie, is to lay out a litany of the differences between the Democrats and the Republicans heading into the November election.

And yet the polls show, this week, a lack of confidence in the Obama administration's performance with regard to handling the economy and finances. What is your explanation for that?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, I just wonder, honestly, whether or not anybody in the inner circle to the president has actually owned or operated a small business, whether they've actually had a payroll that they've had to meet. I look at the policies that come out. You look at the stimulus package. You look at the litany of jumpstarts that the administration sought to do to move the economy forward. And I think that they don't understand why people go into business, Tony. People go into business to accumulate wealth. When you accumulate wealth, you have capital. When you have capital, you can hire people. You can bring in more equipment, you can bring in a variety of different markets that you can expand your business to.

But when you have an administration that is seemingly very interested in taxing the rich and playing class warfare, that puts up regulatory burdens, it makes it very difficult for a small business to expand.

Celinda and I both own our own practice areas, and, of course, we understand what it means to meet a payroll. I just wonder when the American people across the country look at these policies and say, are they in touch with me? Do they understand the business that I have to run and some of the challenges that I face?

COX: Let me ask you this, Celinda: Looking ahead into the fall, what strategy do you think will be most effective for the president going forward? We know now that the first lady has gone out on the stump to help him. We know what the issues are. You've described them, and so has Ron Christie. But what do you think it will take for the Democrats to be successful - more successful than people are giving them credit for heading into the fall?

Ms. LAKE: I think the map is pretty clear. I think there are two things that - well, three things to be successful. One is I think we need to energize our base. There's an enormous enthusiasm gap. The Washington Post poll that just came out today showed, really, the parties basically tied. But then when you look at who is likely to vote, the Republicans have a distinct advantage. So we really need to get out our vote.

And I think the first lady, of measurable help in doing that, and the president getting out there and articulating speeches as he did in Milwaukee - of enormous help in that, as well.

COX: Do you think there's a bellwether race that the Democrats are looking toward as an indication of how things are likely to go?

Ms. LAKE: Oh, in terms of turnout?

COX: Yeah. Well, in terms of turnout, in terms of result, as well.

Ms. LAKE: Well, in terms of turnout, I think that there are any number of bellwether races. But I think that one of the races where turn out could make a big differences are - is the - are the California races, where you're finding, both in the Senate and the gubernatorial races, as well as the number of congressional races, the Republicans a couple points ahead. But if you look at a likely electorate - but if you look at an electorate that's even halfway to what we had in 2008, then you see the Democrats ahead. So I think that's a real - or tied. So that's a big - those races are a big indicator.

COX: Let me ask, Ron, as our time winds down, do you see a bellwether race, and what is it? Where is it?

Mr. CHRISTIE: I agree with both of Celinda's points. I think it's going to be all about turnouts. The Republicans are very motivated, and if the Democrats can mobilize their base, I think that they might mitigate some of the losses.

As a native Californian, I agree with her on both of the California races. But the one I have my eye on, Tony, is Wisconsin, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold.

COX: Feingold, yes. One last thing I want to ask you, Ron, because a great deal has been written and said about the Tea Party. We know that the Tea Party has had an impact through the primary season. General election, different matter. Will they have an impact in November?

Mr. CHRISTIE: I think they will. I think both for what Celinda and I have said, I think that mobilization and turnout of the base will be key. I think the Tea Party, from this point forward, is going to be all about voter mobilization. And I think they will have a dramatic impact on helping the Republicans take back the House this November.

COX: Celinda, I need a yes or no from you on this question: Are you scared of the Tea Party in the November election?

Ms. LAKE: I think it's like nitroglycerin. So I'm both scared and energized by it, because it can blow up the Republicans, as well as help them.

COX: All right. We are joined - we have been joined by Celinda Lake, Democratic strategist and pollster. She heads up Lake Research Partners. Also, Ron Christie, Republican strategist and former aide to first Vice President Dick Cheney, then to President George W. Bush. He runs Christie Strategies, joining me here in the studios in Washington, D.C. We appreciate it. Thank you both.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Pleasure.

Ms. LAKE: Thank you.

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