July 9, 2010 -- Forward not backward: That's the mantra President Obama wants to drill into voters' heads between now and November.
"It's a choice between the policies that led us into this mess and the policies that are leading us out of this mess," he said Thursday at a fundraiser for Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan.
Such framing of the November midterm elections is a classic political strategy. The party in power wants to avoid turning voters' decisions into a referendum on it, but at the same time wants to tout its own policies as the best solutions for existing problems.
"We don't have to guess how the other party will govern, because we're still living with the results from the last time," Obama said Thursday, referring to when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress.
Meanwhile, Obama hit the road today for a mix of policy and politics, using a two-day trip to Missouri and Nevada to tout clean energy and job creation and also bring in some campaign cash for two vulnerable Democratic Senate candidates, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Carnahan.
Obama began using the forward-backward theme in recent speeches on the economy as a way to promote the stimulus act, health care overhaul and his plan for job creation.
He took it out for a spin Thursday night on the fundraising circuit and ramped up the rhetoric against the Republican Party.
"It's a little odd getting lectures on sobriety from folks who spent like drunken sailors for the better part of the last decade," Obama said. "You'd think that after turning a record Clinton surplus into a record deficit and record debt, they'd be a little shy about this."
Obama said that Republicans whose policies "gave us the economic crisis" now want to get back behind the wheel after driving the economy into a ditch.
"They want the keys back, and you've got to say ... the same thing to them that you say to your teenager," the president said. "You can't have the keys back because you don't know how to drive yet. You can't have the keys. Maybe you take a remedial course. Or I'll take you out to the parking lot and you can drive in circles. But we're not going to let you out on the open road."
In both states, Obama tried to paint the Republicans in Washington, D.C., as cut from the same cloth.
"They've got that 'no' philosophy; that 'you're-on-your-own' philosophy; the status quo philosophy, a philosophy that says everything is politics and we're just going to gun for the next election, we don't care what it means for the next generation," he said in Missouri. "And they figure if they just keep on saying no it'll work for them, they'll get more votes in November because, if Obama loses, they win."
In Las Vegas, Obama stood beside Reid and described him as a scrappy fighter who will work hard for the people of Nevada.
"You know Harry used to be a boxer, he likes to brag about that, but he brags in his Harry way: 'I wasn't big, obviously, but I could take a punch,'" the president said. "He's taken his lumps, we all have. But I have no doubt that the people in Nevada will realize the quality of public servant they have in Harry Reid partly because he knows no matter what kind of lumps he's taking, nothing compares to the lumps folks back home have been taking."
The dynamics of the Senate race in Nevada -- and politics in general -- are different than the last time Obama campaigned for Reid back in February.
Sen. Scott Brown had just won an upset victory in the race to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts, breaking the Democrats supermajority in the Senate. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., had announced he would not seek reelection, the fifth Democratic senator to do so, because of the hyper-partisanship that he believed prevented legislative progress in Washington. His announcement brought the number of vulnerable Democratic Senate seats to 10 and Obama's party was looking increasingly on the ropes for November, with Reid at the top of that list.
Reid is locked in a dead heat with his Republican challenger, newcomer Sharon Angle, but one Democratic official said that the "tectonic plates have shifted" in Nevada.
"At that time, talking about Harry Reid winning, it would have been a joke," the official said of Obama's previous visit to Nevada. "The fact is we're now in the hunt."
Several party officials expressed confidence that Reid is in good enough shape at this stage in the campaign and some were cautiously optimistic that the Senate majority leader will pull out the win.
That may be more because of the state of play on the Republican side than Reid's suddenly improving his own standing in his home state. Angle came out of nowhere in the closing days of the Republican primary, buoyed by massive support from the Tea Party movement, which kicked in half a million dollars for her campaign. Democrats have pointed to Angle's anti-government positions as evidence that she is outside the mainstream and said at the time of her primary victory that they were glad to run against her because it enabled them to make the campaign all about her, rather than a referendum on the unpopular Reid.
A Referendum on Obama
That dynamic is a theme that will be heard in races across the country, with the Democrats constantly saying the midterm elections are a choice, not a referendum on Obama or the Democratic majorities in Congress.
"There's a choice that candidates are going to be making in each race and it will turn on that," one Democratic Party official said.
But Republicans will certainly go the referendum route.
"The distilled argument that Republicans can clearly make to voters is that with the Democrats in charge we're advancing policies that are not helping them on the core issue they care about, which is the economy," Republican strategist Kevin Madden said. "At the end of the day, [voters] have reacted to the economic slowdown very conservatively. They spend less money and they've tried to do more with less and Washington has done the exact opposite. Spending is out of control and Democrats have grown the size of government."
Obama redrew the electoral map in 2008, picking up wins in states where Democrats had long been shut out, such as North Carolina and Colorado. But as the campaign and Election Night faded in the rear-view mirror, the president's polling numbers declined from their peak in the upper 60s.
Obama's job approval ratings are now hovering around the 50 percent mark but holding steady there for most of this year. The attitudes of Americans have continued to sour as unemployment remains high and job creation has been slow.
In the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, 62 percent of Americans said they believe the country is on the wrong track, the highest level since before the 2008 election.
This was Obama's fifth trip to Missouri since he took office and he may have some unfinished business to wrap up there.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, Missouri was one of the key targeted battleground states that Obama was unable to flip from Red to Blue. It was also the state with the fewest votes separating Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Obama, with McCain winning by 3,903 votes.
Missouri Race Turns Bitter
So it's perhaps the desire to flip something in the state from Republican to Democrat, and a hot Senate race that has Obama back in the Show-Me State once again.
The race for Missouri's open seat is shaping up as a bitter, close battle between Carnahan and Republican Rep. Roy Blunt. Democrats view the race as a prime opportunity, one of just a handful, to pick off a Republican seat by painting Blunt as a Washington insider while Republicans will try to link Carnahan to Obama and his agenda.
Obama was in St. Louis in March, raising money for the Democratic Party and for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., an early supporter of his presidential bid who is not up for reelection until 2012.
Carnahan was conspicuously absent: She was in Washington for meetings, part of her official duties as secretary of state. Democrats said she was not dissing the president, but chalked it up to a scheduling conflict.
State and national Republicans tried to make hay of her absence when Obama was in town, suggesting that she wanted to avoid a photo op with a president whose polling numbers were declining. Blunt's campaign said that Carnahan could fly East but she "can't hide from her rubber-stamp support of Barack Obama."
White House and Democratic Party officials still won't reveal where the president will campaign between now and Election Day, but maintain, as they have for months, that there is a large stack of requests for his time.
Party officials say that Obama will be more visible on the trail over the next four months and will campaign "aggressively" for Democratic candidates where and when he can be helpful.
Obama's campaign engagement is not so vastly different from former President George W. Bush in 2006, who focused more of his time, efforts and travel on fundraising rather than rallies with candidates. Strategists in both parties said that is a by-product of weakened poll numbers and the fact that presidents can simply be more helpful drawing in the big bucks than doing a rally to gin up supporters.
GOP to Focus on Obama Ties
National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said that Obama's efforts on the stump last fall and earlier this year for candidates that ultimately lost in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts are evidence of why candidates like Carnahan have "taken great pains" to not appear at events with Obama.
Walsh said that even if Democratic candidates dodge appearances with the president, Republicans pledge to continue hammering away at their ties to the president's agenda.
Democratic Party officials welcome that game plan and think it benefits their candidates.
"As we learned in [Pennsylvania's 12 District], Republican efforts to nationalize the election lose out to a Democratic candidate focused on jobs and middle class," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Eric Schultz said of the House special election to fill the seat of the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha.
Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi factored heavily into the Republicans' strategy to tie the Democratic candidate to the party in Washington.
Democrat Mark Critz won that seat by 8 points, in the only district that voted for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in 2004 and flipped to McCain in the 2008 presidential election.
ABC News' Sunlen Miller and Kristina Wong contributed to this report.