RALLYING THE FAITHFUL
He returns to the site of a campaign rally – with a more partisan message this time.
President Obama returns to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he campaigned in 2008. “The biggest mistake we can make … is to let disappointment or frustration lead to apathy and indifference,” he told a larger but less exuberant crowd this time in a rally for other Democrats.
Nearly 1,000 days ago, Barack Obama appeared as a Democratic candidate for president before a rally at the University of Wisconsin, telling a massive audience bursting with “Yes we can” idealism that he would change the system and end the schisms and gridlock that had paralyzed American politics.
Obama was back for another campus rally Tuesday — this time as president. This year’s crowd was even bigger, and the applause was rousing, if not nearly as frenzied. But the exuberance has been dampened by a sour economy and wrenching political fights.
When Obama came to the university on Feb. 12, 2008, the momentum of the Democratic primary campaign had turned in his favor. His insurgent candidacy was creating the rarest of political coalitions: Blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats, Latinos and Asians were lining up behind him, he said, signaling that an Obama presidency might bring an end to all the old divisions.
Much has changed in 21⁄ years. Political divisions are as pronounced as ever. Obama is grayer, aged from the pressures of office. And his mission is different. The coalition he assembled in 2008 has frayed, and the president is struggling to convince Democratic voters to show up in force for the midterm election Nov. 2 and keep Congress in the party’s control.
“The biggest mistake we can make right now is to let disappointment or frustration lead to apathy and indifference,” he said. “That’s how the other side wins.”
For the Democrats and Obama, it’s a tough sell. Obama isn’t on the ballot, and many of the young, liberal voters he is targeting are unhappy with what they see as a lack of progress 20 months into his presidency.
Obama sought to address the disenchantment head-on. He reminded the crowd of the “Hope” posters from the 2008 campaign, the excitement surrounding his victory, and Beyonce and Bono singing for his inauguration.
“I know sometimes it feels a long way from the hope and excitement that we felt on election day and the day of the inauguration,” Obama, his voice sounding hoarse, told a crowd of about 26,000. “But I’ve got to say, we always knew this was going to take time. We always knew this was going to be hard.”
The mood has changed since Obama has taken office. In 2008, there were more spontaneous chants of “Yes we can!” Obama urged young people in the audience to sacrifice for their country and spun a vision of a unified America working toward a higher purpose. The audience roared its approval over and over, applauding an average of once every 30 seconds.
This time, Obama’s message was plainly more partisan. A clear goal was to gin up anger toward Republicans. Obama blamed them for the economic meltdown, urging Democrats to hold them accountable in the midterm election for the policies in effect from 2001 to 2009, when George W. Bush was president.
“The idea was if you just put blind faith in the market and let corporations play by their own rules and leave everyone else to fend for themselves, then America would grow and prosper,” Obama said. “But that philosophy failed.
“They were in charge; we saw what happened,” he added.
On cue, the crowd booed the Republicans.
Since the earlier rally, the economy has gotten worse. In February 2008, when he described the economy as “sluggish,” unemployment was less than 5%. Now unemployment is 9.6%.
Obama devoted a large chunk of the speech to explaining how that happened. Losses under Republican leadership have proved tough to reverse, he said. Pointing to the years the government was in GOP hands, he said he needed more time for his own economic policies to work.
“I am telling you, Wisconsin, we are bringing about change, and progress is going to come. But you’ve got to stick with me. You can’t lose heart,” he said.
A theme of the 2008 rally was Obama himself. As a candidate selling himself to amass audience, he laid out his personal story, describing how when he was 2, his father left the family.
This time, he stuck to politics — though his biography is becoming a political liability. Recent polls show about 1 in 5 Americans mistakenly believe him to be Muslim.
Obama was joined at the rally by Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), who is battling upstart, “tea party”backed GOP businessman Ron Johnson for reelection.
Obama tried to rally the crowd’s interest in the upcoming election amid projections that Democrats will suffer heavy losses, possibly including control of the House and Senate.
The president’s appearance was part of a series of Democratic rallies that the White House hopes will motivate voters in the last weeks of the midterm campaign.
Saying he was “fired up,” he urged the university crowd to defy the projections of experts and critics.
“They’re basically saying that you’re apathetic, you’re disappointed,” Obama said. “Wisconsin, we can’t let that happen. We cannot sit this one out. We can’t let this country fall backward because the rest of us didn’t care enough to fight.”