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"Buck Up!" A Winning Strategy from Obama?


This post originally appeared on Slate.


Barack Obama
President Obama speaks to a group Sept. 8, 2010, at Cuyahoga Community College West Campus in Parma, Ohio. Getty Images

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, President Obama tried to stir Democratic voters this way: "People need to shake off this lethargy. People need to buck up. ... If people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren't serious in the first place." Insofar as a campaign strategy can be contained in a quote, it's an interesting one. But before I continue with this story, allow me to interrupt with a question. If you're a Democratic voter, what do you hear when the president says, "Buck up"? Enter your response in the comments section.

The president must already miss his soon-to-depart Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. When people in the White House say, "Buck up," they often receive Emanuel's favorite epithet in return. (Hint: The first word of the phrase rhymes with buck.) Telling people to "buck up" suggests they are ignorant, inattentive, or lazy. This doesn't seem a promising approach to bringing Democrats out of their fuming repose.

Of course, for those who already share the president's point of view, this call will seem reasonable. For the last few weeks the president has been telling Democrats "wake up" to what's at stake in this election. If they don't participate, Republicans will take over. Whatever the Obama administration's deficiencies, Republican control of either or both houses of Congress will be far worse.

But the president isn't preaching to the converted. He's talking directly to members of his base, who are disappointed and angry with him. They've been angered afresh by Vice President Joe Biden, who not only told them to "buck up" but chided Democrats for "whining." (Aside: When has an order to someone to "stop whining" made that someone less irritated?) Since the president's performance in office is at issue, the "buck up" call creates a second offense: It could be read to suggest that the president is blameless in causing the current lethargy. If part of the grievance is that these voters don't think they are being taken seriously or listened to, this would only seem to exacerbate that feeling. Finally, there is a kind of tautological problem: How do you persuade people to stop whining by whining about it?

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At best, the president is likely to lock in the existing feelings in his Democratic base. I asked the readers of the Slate Gabfest Facebook page for their response to the president's remarks. Obama had his defenders--and some excellent translators of his message--but won no converts from the group he was addressing. He did, however, stir some anger. "I hear a President taking no personal responsibility for producing that apathy," said Tim Oliver. "As a left-of-center person, I hear: 'sit down and quit your whining,' " wrote Gant Zky. A Democratic strategist thought the president was building a case for blame after the election: it was all the spiteful base's fault.

"Buck up" isn't the president's only message. White House aides were pointing to the recent small-business legislation to illustrate how the president is delivering despite Republican obstruction. The president will also be trying to rally the Democratic base in a speech to students at the University of Wisconsin late Tuesday that is likely to have the soaring, lyrical Obama campaign touch. He will argue that all they voted for in 2008 will be undone if they stay out of politics now. The speech will try to lift Democrats to the polls, whereas the "buck up" message seeks to push them there. Perhaps the mix of sweet and sour will be more effective than simply sour.

The Republicans have faced a similar debate with Tea Party members who want purity over electoral viability. The difference with the Republicans is that GOP leaders are courting the activists, not telling them to shape up (a reversal of attention that progressives recognize). It is the establishment GOP figures who are given the counseling. After Christine O'Donnell's victory in the Republican primary in Delaware, Sarah Palin chided Karl Rove, who worried O'Donnell was unelectable. "Well, bless his heart," said Palin. "We love our friends there in the machine, the expert politicos. But my message to those who say that the GOP nominee is not electable, or that they're not even going to try, well I say, buck up!"

More from Slate:

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John Dickerson is a CBS News political analyst. He is also Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. You can also follow him on Twitter here.