The Political Difficulties Facing President Obama President Obama campaigns across the country this week in the hopes of improving his party's outlook for November. NPR's Mara Liasson looks at all the things that didn't work out the way the White House thought they would.
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The Political Difficulties Facing President Obama

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The Political Difficulties Facing President Obama

The Political Difficulties Facing President Obama

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel.

And first up this hour, on the road with the president. Mr. Obama is visiting various parts of the country this week, trying to reenergize his base before the November elections. In a moment, we'll hear from our correspondent who is traveling with him.

But first, NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on the political paradoxes that are motivating the president to get outside the Beltway.

MARA LIASSON: The president and his advisors always knew they'd have a very tough midterm election, but what's remarkable is how many of the White House assumptions turned out to be wrong. Above all, they guessed wrong on jobs. The president's economists once predicted the stimulus bill would keep the unemployment rate at 8 percent. Now, those green shoots of economic growth that looked so hopeful in the spring are withered and the recovery looks weak.

And what about all those points on the legislative scoreboard the president hoped would convince the public he was fixing the mess he inherited? Former Clinton White House aide Bill Galston says that didn't work out either.

Mr. BILL GALSTON (Former Clinton White House Aide): The president's advisors are sort of scratching their heads because, as they see it, this is a record of legislative achievement during this Congress that rivals Lyndon Johnson's. But there's a problem with one exception, namely, the bill to impose new regulations on financial institutions. Every one of these pieces of legislation is unpopular with the American people, some wildly so.

LIASSON: And even though most economists think without Mr. Obama's efforts things would certainly have been worse, a majority of voters thinks the stimulus hasn't worked, health care wont work and the bailouts were a boondoggle.

Back in the spring, Democrats were also convinced voters would reject Republican candidates who'd been Wall Street lobbyists or investment bankers. But as the poll numbers for Dan Coats in Indiana, John Kasich in Ohio and Meg Whitman in California suggest, anti-government sentiment is trumping anger at big business.

The president was confronted with another problem the White House didn't anticipate last week, when in what's become the iconic sound bite of the fall campaign, a female African-American veteran stood up at a town hall meeting and expressed just how frustrated Mr. Obama's own core voters have become.

Unidentified Woman: Ive been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I'm one of those people, and I'm waiting, sir. I'm waiting. I don't feel it yet.

LIASSON: No matter how hard the president's tried, he's never been able to close the gap between the change people expected and the change he was able to give them. Bill Galston.

Mr. GALSTON: The moral of this story is that campaigns really matter. Not only what you say, how much you promise, how much excitement you stir up. And by all of those standards, the 2008 campaign was off the charts. And it accounts on the one hand for the amazing breadth and depth of the enthusiasm that candidate Barack Obama aroused and it also helps explain why the disappointment has been deeper than one might have predicted just looking at the objective indicators.

LIASSON: One of those objective indicators is how unpopular the Republican Party is - and that's another unanticipated paradox. Never before has a party so out of favor seemed poised to make such big gains in Congress. The Democrats also assumed the Tea Party would backfire and tear apart the GOP. But at least until election day, the Republicans' enthusiastic insurgents seem to have been folded into the Republican tent. With the exception of Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, there's not a Tea Party-backed candidate for Senate that's behind in the polls right now.

All that helps to explain why the president is spending so much time reaching out to young voters. In Madison today and on a conference call yesterday, he reminded young people who turned out for him in droves two years ago that the Democrats need them again.

President BARACK OBAMA: You can't sit it out. You can't suddenly just check in once every 10 years or so on an exciting presidential election and then not pay attention during big midterm elections where we've got a real big choice between Democrats and Republicans.

LIASSON: With Independents breaking for the Republicans, getting those Obama surge voter from 2008 back to the polls is crucial. It's why the White House was willing to put the president out in front of big old-fashioned campus rallies like the one in Madison today, even at the risk of having the excitement and crowd size pale in comparison to the Obama fever they created in 2008.

Dan Pfeiffer is the White House communications director.

Mr. DAN PFEIFFER (White House Communications Director): Obviously, a campaign rally has a feeling of nostalgia to it. It wasn't that long ago the president was doing these in his own election, but I think this will help organizationally for campaigns across the country to build up a larger volunteer base and get folks to get out to vote and to become aware of the elections.

LIASSON: That's the tactical card the president can play. His other remaining card is his message. It's hard to convince voters that he's made things better, so, Pfeiffer says, Mr. Obama's message is simple - the other side is a lot worse.

Mr. PFEIFFER: The reason the Midwest has been hurting for so long is because the policies of the last decade or so that the Republicans want to put in place going forward if they get power. So, that's the message the President will have in this rally; it's the message he'll have as he's traveling around the country.

LIASSON: And that's really all he can say, particularly in what's been the Democratic stronghold of the Midwest - where, in yet another unexpected development this year, Democrats are struggling to hold on to governor's mansions and Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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