Barack Obama has had a rough fall. Six years into a hard presidency, he’s wrestling with global instability, a pandemic, an uneven recovery and gridlocked governance. His national approval ratings are down, and his Republican critics are absolutely determined to paint the president as a “toxic” element in the midterm mix. But Obama does not look toxic on the trail through the states where he has begun a final round of 2014 campaigning that is focused, energetic and potentially significant not just for Democrats in close and critical gubernatorial races but for a party that has failed at too many turns this fall to provide a coherent and consistent message.
Obama is actually trying to do something interesting on the trail. He is making a case that is antithetical to the crude, fear-based politics of 2014 by arguing not just for voting but for believing that voting matters. This is not abstraction. Midterm elections have significantly lower turnout rates than presidential elections, which tends to favor Republicans. Additionally, plenty of people who voted for the president and for other Democrats in 2008 and 2012 are now put off by the process, legitimately frustrated not just with obstructionist Republicans but with compromising and politically cautious Democrats.
Obama on the trail is acknowledging the frustration, recognizing widespread cynicism about whether voting matters and then pushing people to believe again—if not entirely in the prospect of changing Washington then at least in the prospect of changing their states.
“You just assume that there’s not much you can do with Springfield and Washington,” Obama argued when he campaigned earlier this month with Governor Pat Quinn in Illinois. “And each and every day you’re fed a message that what you think doesn’t really matter, that your experience doesn’t matter, that nothing you can do is going to make any difference, and both parties are in the tank… And you start being skeptical of every politician. And you start believing that it’s not worth voting. Well I’m here to tell you that that kind of cynicism is a choice you’ve made.”
That, argues Obama, is the wrong choice. “You have power,” he has told voters in Chicago and Milwaukee and will tell voters in Portland and Providence and Detroit and Bridgeport—and perhaps even a few more places before November 4.
There is in Obama’s focus on gubernatorial races an unspoken acknowledgement that 2014 election results are not at all likely to produce a Congress that is any more friendly to him or to his policies. But those results are likely to include big wins for popular Democratic governors such as Jerry Brown in California and Mark Dayton in Minnesota, as well as defeats for Republican governors in as many as a half dozens states.