Closing out a perilous election season for Democrats, President Barack Obama's final argument sounds like this: Do you want to stick with progress or return to failure?
He's talking about control of Congress, not himself, but there is no escaping his imprint on this election.
With every echo of the spirited 2008 campaign, every mention of the unfinished work and every photo he takes with another candidate, Obama serves up another reminder that his own agenda is at stake on Nov. 2.
It is part of the tricky balance for the White House — deploying Obama to the right places to stir up enthusiasm and recruit first-time voters from two years ago, yet trying to keep people from viewing the election as a referendum on him and the battered economy.
Half of likely voters say how they vote on their House race won't be affected by Obama at all, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll. Yet almost as many said they will, in fact, base their House vote in part to send a message about Obama — 26 percent to oppose him, 23 percent to support him.
With Democratic control of the House, and possibly the Senate, in jeopardy after the Nov. 2 voting, the president is investing a lot of time to convince supporters that the midterm elections matter. As he put it at one fundraiser this month, "Unless we are able to maintain Democrats in the House and Senate, then we're going to be stalled for two years or four years, and we're going to start going backwards."
That is the message Obama has been pounding for weeks. Aides say he will stick with it throughout his final flurry of campaigning. He is referring to the fate of big items Congress already has passed, like health care and Wall Street reform, and promises not yet kept, including deficit reduction and immigration.
"We don't want them rolling back health reform, so insurance companies can deny you coverage because you're sick. We don't want them rolling back Wall Street reform, so now credit card companies can go back to hitting you with hidden fees and penalties," Obama said Wednesday night at a noisy indoor rally in Portland, Ore., for gubernatorial candidate John Kitzhaber. "We have tried that before and we're not going back."
Four-day campaign swing for Obama
Obama is in the midst of his longest campaign swing as president, a four-day trip through Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada and Minnesota. The audience in Portland, estimated at 8,000 people, leapt to its feet and erupted into cheers as Obama bounded onto the stage. That was a fraction of the 75,000 people who flocked to a riverfront rally in the city during his 2008 presidential campaign, but still more than the 5,000 people rally organizers had hoped would attend.
Obama's agenda Thursday includes an economic discussion geared toward women, a critical political constituency. And in a series of interviews and town halls of late, the president also has reached out to blacks, Hispanics and young adults to hammer home his message that the country is moving ahead despite weak economic times.
Democrats are expected to lose a significant number of seats in the House; Republicans need to gain 40 to regain control of the chamber they lost in the middle of George W. Bush's final term. In the Senate, Republicans are also likely to pick up seats, though probably not enough to win a majority.
Less than two weeks from the election, the question appears to be whether Republicans will enjoy a wave election, in which virtually all the close races tip their way and tilt power in Washington, or more moderate gains. Obama's aides profess confidence that Democrats will retain power but know all the factors working against them: near-10 percent unemployment, a history of midterm losses for the party of the president in power and public frustration with the slow economic recovery.
Obama's main roles are to raise money for the party, draw votes and media coverage for candidates in tight races, entice volunteers to knock on doors for scores of lesser-known candidates and try to shape the national election debate. He is intent on drawing a contrast between Democratic and Republican leadership of the country and will repeat it everywhere he goes, based on the assumption that it will be fresh to voters in Minnesota even if he just said it in Maryland.
His 2008 presidential campaign manager, David Plouffe, said Obama may well not be able to change the dynamic of a race in which a candidate is trailing by 8 to 10 points, but he could be a key factor if the margin is 51-49.
"The central actors in the election are the candidates themselves," Plouffe said. "It's how they handle the last two weeks that's most important."
Obama, though, is at the center of reminding voters that this election and the issues it will shape are an extension of his own win in 2008.
"I know that there are times where probably it's hard to recapture that sense of possibility," Obama said in Ohio this week. "It's hard sometimes to say, 'Yes, we can.' You start thinking, 'Well, maybe, I don't know.' It's not as inspiring a slogan. But I said during the campaign, this has never been easy."