For Obama, pushing ‘change’ is tougher this time around

MILWAUKEE -- Change, President Obama’s most basic rationale for reelection, remains his toughest sell.

Throughout the campaign, in high-profile speeches and private remarks, Obama has sought to maintain the theme that powered his 2008 bid for the White House, arguing that a vote for him is a vote for a new day in Washington.

He has said his reelection will “break the fever” of partisanship in Washington. He’s told voters that “only you can break the stalemate” that has crippled the divided government.

On Saturday, he raised the idea by pointing out that members of Congress had just left town for the campaign season without resolving many disputed issues of taxes and government spending.

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[Updated at 2:11 p.m., Sept. 22: In his morning radio address, Obama complained that “there’s been enough talk” and declared: “It’s time for action.”

Later, in remarks to a crowd at the Milwaukee Theater, Obama issued a call for the kind of change he suggested only a movement of the people can bring about.

“I’ve always said change takes more than one term, one president, one party,” Obama said. “It doesn’t happen if you write off half the nation before you take office. It happens when you include everybody…. Everybody gets involved.”]

It’s a slightly awkward argument for the president, who essentially is asking voters to demand something different from Washington while opting for the familiar with a vote for him.

The dilemma is a perennial one for all incumbents, but it is particularly acute for this president, a man who just four years ago distilled his first campaign’s slogan to just the one word.

Obama has tried variations on the “change” theme throughout his campaign. He has asked voters to guard the change that’s already occurred. He’s put the onus on voters, saying, “You are the change.”

The latter riff shot to prominence this week when challenger Mitt Romney’s campaign and other Republicans cast his remarks as a white flag -- an acknowledgment that Obama was giving up on his promise to change Washington.

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Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan renewed the complaint on Saturday. As Obama made his way to Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin for several campaign stops, Ryan mocked Obama’s “change equation.”

“Why do we send presidents to the White House in the first place?” Ryan told a crowd in Miami. “We send presidents to change and fix the mess in Washington, and if this president has admitted that he can’t change Washington, then you know what? We need to change presidents.”

The candidate of “Yes, we can” has become the president of “no, I can’t,” Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Saturday.

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The back-and-forth demonstrates the potential potency of the change message -- particularly as the most disaffected of voters tune in for the final stretch of the campaign. With a stagnant economy and a pile of problems awaiting the next president, the candidate who can position himself as change agent may still hold a fierce weapon in this election.

Obama’s hurdles are considerable. If he is reelected, not even his campaign is expecting the victory to be a result of the sort of Democratic wave necessary to wrest control of the House of Representatives from Republicans or give Democrats the overwhelming majority needed to have their way in the Senate. In other words, January 2013 would look much like June 2012 -- divided government.

The election is expected, by definition, to contradict Obama’s argument. It would be a status-quo election.

Still, Obama and his aides have often suggested that the balance of power doesn’t tell the whole story. Obama’s reelection would “break the fever” of partisanship, they argue, chastening Republicans and creating mandate for the president’s policies particularly as the parties begin to negotiate a major deficit and tax deal.

“My hope is that if the American people send a message to them that’s consistent with the fact that Congress is polling at 13% right now, and they suffer some losses in this next election, that there’s going to be some self-reflection going on -- that it might break the fever,” Obama said in an interview this spring in Rolling Stone magazine. “They might say to themselves: ‘You know what, we’ve lost our way here. We need to refocus on trying to get things done for the American people.’”

Obama’s theory is not one widely held in Washington, where a Romney loss is likely to be viewed as a failure of a candidate and a campaign, not a political philosophy. Lawmakers on the Hill who won their races aren’t likely to be humbled by a Romney failure.

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“If everything is the same, then nothing is going to change,” said Rich Galen, a GOP consultant and the former spokesman for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “That sounds like it’s coming from someone who has never spent a day on Capitol Hill. From the lawmakers’ point of view, they say, ‘I won my race, I got elected. That’s my mandate. I heard from my constituents, so see ya.’”

If the president wins, “we’re basically going to start 2016 the next Thursday,” he said.

In recent remarks, Obama has emphasized his supporters’ role in bringing about change.

“I think that I’ve learned some lessons over the last four years, and the most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside,” Obama told a Univision-hosted town hall in Coral Gables, Fla., on Thursday. “You can only change it from the outside. That’s how I got elected, and that’s how the big accomplishments like healthcare got done, was because we mobilized the American people to speak out.”

To some degree, Obama has adopted the strategy of President Reagan’s “Morning in America,” which recalled the nation’s malaise when he took office and talked about how far it had progressed during his term, said Kenneth R. Mayer, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Obama and his campaign frequently ask some version of the question posed in Reagan’s famous ads: “Why would we ever want to return to where we were?”

“The problem for Obama is that, even though things are a lot better, it doesn’t feel that way to everyone,” Mayer said. “By 1984, the recession was over and it was easy to say, ‘We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.’ It’s a more difficult strategy when unemployment is around 8%.”

So Obama has added a twist to his 2008 message of “change,” making it more along the lines of “Change: It Takes Time.”

Jen Psaki, campaign press secretary to the president, says that says something about Obama’s approach to governing. Romney’s and Ryan’s comments about Obama’s promise of change present an opportunity, she said Saturday.

“This is a fundamental difference in how they would govern,” she said. “Mitt Romney seems to believe he can wave a magic wand and tell people what to do within the walls of Washington, and that that’s going to make change happen in this country.”

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