Dog-Day Democrats

Will a newly feisty, fired-up Obama be enough to save his party in November?

President Barack Obama

Cars, a dog, a Slurpee and the fish in the sea: These are just some of the topics President Obama touched on in his feisty Labor Day speech. With 58 days until the election, he has time to bring in a marching band or a kung-fu fight. Before the Milwaukee speech, a senior White House official said that the holiday kick-off to the final campaign sprint would allow Obama to break out of the trappings of the office that sometimes limit what a president can say. In campaign mode, the president would be “liberated.” He was. “They treat me like a dog,”he said of the special interests who opposed his programs like Wall Street reform. He joked that the expression wasn’t in his prepared remarks. (This is not Obama’s first time with the dog talk. But the phrase is actually most famously found in Jimi Hendrix’s song of liberation, “Stone Free.”)

This was the Obama Democrats have been waiting for. “That was definitely the most fired up I’ve seen him since he’s been president,” said Eddie Vale, the AFL-CIO’s political communications director who attended the event. “It was like he was back in the ‘08 campaign.”

I’ve heard this enthusiasm before over the last few months. Each time Obama has amped up his political rhetoric, Democrats have heralded the star player of the 2008 season’s return to the field. I heard it when he made the final decision to push through health care reform without Republican support, and when he took on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over Wall Street reform. * But each time, the elated soon became dejected. The push wasn’t sustained. Obama stepped back off the field.

What will happen this time? Will the president stay in campaign mode, pressing the case against Republicans, or will he retreat after this week?

Before the Monday speech, it wasn’t hard to find Democrats in the House and Senate who had races on their hands and were irritated with the president’s level of involvement. It wasn’t that they thought he was making a strategic mistake by lying low to deprive Republicans of a target. They accused him of lack of interest and neglect. “There’s not a thing he’s done in the last two weeks that has won us a single vote,” said one strategist before listing every Obama distraction, from the Oval Office renovation to his comments about the Islamic cultural center in downtown New York. His allies searched for motives: He didn’t want to ruin his chances for 2012 by getting too political. Some ascribed it to a personality flaw: He just didn’t like the business of politics (they passed around E.J. Dionne’s saying Obama needed to get his hands dirty).

Now they’re passing around the text and video of Obama’s Labor Day speech. The president has tested out the themes and jokes he used in the Milwaukee speech in previous venues (usually partisan fundraisers). What seemed to make it work in front of the crowd of 10,000 was his level of engagement. Democratic voters need to believe that they can keep control of Congress despite the bad poll numbers. Obama, who is taking a pounding in the polls, looked like a man who had a secret to the comeback. He sounded like a happy warrior, laughing at his jokes before he’d told them. He even did voices, embellishing his tale about Republicans who drove the economy into the ditch. “We’re sweating, and these guys were watching us and sipping on a Slurpee,” he said to crowd laughter before impersonating his uptight GOP opponents. “And they’re pointing at us and saying ‘How come you’re not pushing harder?’ “

This is the attitude we saw from Obama in the final stages of the presidential campaign, when he was opening up a big lead against John McCain. (“Senator McCain bragged that as chairman of the Senate commerce committee he had oversight of every part of the economy,” Obama used to say. “All I can say to Senator McCain is, ‘Nice job.’ “) Now though, it is Obama and his party who, like McCain, read day after day of political coverage about their approaching doom. (Polls by the Washington Post/ABC News and Wall Street Journal/NBC News delivered more grim news today.)

Obama did more in the speech than offer laughs, though. He appealed to the crowd’s emotions. He talked about the firefighters, teachers, and police officers whose jobs were saved by the Recovery Act. When he talked about people without a job, he spoke about helping the less fortunate in ways that echoed his speech to the House Democrats before the health care vote. “Those are the folks I got into politics for,” he told the crowd. “You are the reason I’m here.”

This is why these speeches remind people of the Obama of 2008 and even 2007. He is able to take them past the disappointments and distractions of the moment and remind them why they do what they do, why it’s possible to still have hope. If the Democratic ground game is going to save the party from a big defeat, as David Plouffe explains in a video to the ground troops this week, then Obama is going to have to provide the energy and enthusiasm.

Tomorrow president Obama travels to Cleveland. He will take on House Minority Leader John Boehner, who attacked the administration’s economic policies from there several weeks ago. The visit delights Boehner and his aides, who said that if the president was going to this much trouble, he must be desperate. White House aides say the president isn’t elevating his opponent to his level but crystallizing that the election is a choice, a message they’ve been trying to get across for months. “Up until now it’s been us against the world,” says a senior administration official. “It shouldn’t be our vision against nothing. It should be our vision against their vision. Now is the time to start attaching some of the baggage that’s only so far attached to us.”

The key thrust of Obama’s argument is that Republicans have no new ideas, and that from the start of his presidency they have reflexively opposed him. “If I said the sky was blue, they’d say no,” Obama told the crowd. “If I said fish live in the sea, they’d say no.” So far, this argument doesn’t seem to be working. Though Republicans have been coy about their future plans and no less obstructionist, polls show voters moving to them on the issues anyway. In a CNN/Opinion Research poll, 46 percent of Americans said that Republicans in Congress would do a better job handling economic issues, while 43 percent said that Democrats would. A year ago, Democrats held a 52 percent to 39 percent advantage. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll, Republicans now “run about evenly with Democrats on the question of which party they trust to handle the nation’s biggest problems.” Some 40 percent of registered voters say they have more confidence in Democrats, and 38 percent say they have more trust in Republicans. Three months ago, Democrats had a 12-point advantage.

At the end of his Labor Day speech, the president promised that he was going to travel the country until Election Day, making his case. But it’s not clear exactly how much effort he’ll put forward. A White House official said that unlike Bill Clinton in 1994, Obama would not be visiting three or four cities a day in the final month before the election. Given Obama’s unpopularity in lots of contested districts too much exposure could be a bad thing. Whatever his final level of exertion he’s got to do enough at least so that after November his allies aren’t the ones talking about him like a dog.

Slate V: Watch part of Barack Obama’s speech

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Correction, Sept. 8, 2010: This article originally misidentified Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as majority leader. (Return to the corrected sentence.)