The New Obama and the Midterms.

One of the things that has always infuriated progressive activists about Barack Obama is his insistence on "reaching out" to Republicans, long after it becomes clear they're not interested in working with him. But as we came to understand very quickly, reaching out, even if only in his rhetoric, is just written into Obama's DNA. And even if it's only a political strategy -- presenting himself as the reasonable one, so that when bipartisanship fails he comes out looking like the good guy -- it's a strategy he's deeply invested in, and won't be giving up.

But that isn't to say that Obama can't be seriously partisan when he wants to be. And his speech yesterday in Ohio marked the real beginning of the White House's 2010 election efforts. The speech was a partisan barn-burner, in which he mentioned John Boehner eight times. There are 53 days left before the election. That time is going to be a test both of Obama's willingness to hit Republicans and the degree to which a group of people who know a thing or two about elections can mitigate the effects of a national tide running against them -- an almost absurdly awful economy, the necessity of defending seats in lots of conservative districts, and so on.

In some ways, though, Democrats are better positioned than they would have been in years past, and certainly better than they were in 1994. First, they see the wave coming -- in 1994, many people saw the prospect of huge Republican gains as unrealistic. Second, they have resources they haven't had before -- not only a money advantage, but the data and organizing capabilities left over from the extraordinary effort they constructed two years ago. And then there's the fact that the people they're facing off against aren't exactly a bunch of geniuses. No one would accuse Boehner or RNC Chair Michael Steele of being some kind of master strategist. As Politico wrote today, "The past few weeks of the GOP-is-winning narrative has obscured dysfunction at many levels of the party: an RNC in complete meltdown, top House leaders who are highly suspicious of each other and in deep disagreement about how hard they should pull the country in a much different direction on health care, energy, religious freedom, etc."

So can those advantages make a dent in the anti-administration wave, or are the national conditions all that matter? Can Obama's turn to more bare-knuckle partisanship (assuming he sustains it, which he probably will) have a real impact? Can even a kernel or two of good economic news (like a positive jobs report in the first week of October) move people's opinions about the direction of the economy? We'll find out.

-- Paul Waldman

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