Obama here for Coakley, trailing a diminished aura

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / January 17, 2010

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WASHINGTON - The feverish excitement that propelled Barack Obama and scores of other Democrats to victory in 2008 has all but evaporated, worrying party leaders who are struggling to invigorate the base before Tuesday’s Massachusetts Senate race and November’s critical midterm contests, pollsters and party activists said.

President Obama’s scheduled visit to the Bay State on behalf of Democratic candidate Martha Coakley today, a rescue bid planned suddenly by the White House last week after Republican Scott Brown pulled even or ahead in some polls, will be a key test of the president’s ability to reenergize his dispirited party.

But the challenges to getting an enthusiastic turnout for Democrats in 2010 are huge. Young voters and left-wing Democrats have become frustrated with progress on the Obama agenda in Washington. Polls show that Obama’s popularity among younger Americans is down.

“People are rightfully disenchanted’’ with the way things are going in Washington, said Michael Vastola, 21, a Tufts University senior and active College Democrat. “I’m personally concerned, because I hope they keep their interest in this upcoming election.’’

While many young voters imagined that an Obama presidency would mean a speedy closure of Guantanamo Bay prison, a wind-down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a health care plan that would, at least, provide a government insurance plan to compete with the private sector, they instead are frustrated at the slow pace of change, Vastola and others said.

“There was this expectation that this was going to be like a Hollywood movie. He was a candidate almost fictionalized from day one,’’ Boston-based Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman said of Obama. “Does it make me frustrated? It does. But it’s reality, it’s the world as it really is, not the fantasy.’’

The trend threatens to do serious damage to the Democrats this fall as they seek to hang onto their majorities in Congress. With “tea party’’ activists and other conservatives eager to vent their anger over Democratic policies, low Democratic turnout could be devastating to the majority party. While a GOP takeover of either chamber of Congress seemed highly unlikely even a month ago, Democratic officials, spooked by developments in deep-blue Massachusetts, fear that Republicans could score big upsets this fall.

The White House is clearly disheartened by the attacks it is getting from the left flank of the party.

“I don’t know why some segments of political observers don’t seem to be as motivated. There’s a lot at stake. There’s a lot at stake in the election in Massachusetts; there’s a lot at stake in what’s debated every day on Capitol Hill. What’s at stake is whether we’re going to go forward with ideas for an economic recovery,’’ said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

“Certainly we’ve got a long way to go before November. I think people will understand what’s at stake in 2010. I think people will understand that quite clearly when we get close’’ to the election, Gibbs said.

Polls show that young voters still like Obama, but with less intensity than during the campaign, when 18-29 year-olds voted for him by two-to-one, according to Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Now, 58 percent of those young voters approve of Obama, compared with 54 percent of American voters overall. And a majority of young voters disapprove of the way Obama is handling every key issue the institute studied, including health care, Iran, Afghanistan, the economy, and the budget deficit.

Young voters “have really fallen back in line to look more like the rest of America,’’ said the Institute of Politics polling director, John Della Volpe, a dangerous trend for Democrats who have relied in recent elections on heavy youth support.

Further, while 52 percent of young voters showed up at the polls in 2008, their turnout was abysmally low in last November’s elections, with just 19 percent of eligible young voters casting ballot in New Jersey, 17 percent in Virginia, and 10 percent in New York City’s mayoral race, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, which tracks youth voting patterns.

“Those are lousy numbers,’’ said Peter Levine, the center’s research director. Worse for Democrats, a majority of young voters in Virginia favored the winning GOP candidate for governor, he noted.

“I do feel disappointment, yes,’’ said Ben Katz, 26, a former Obama campaign volunteer coordinator in Maine. But Katz acknowledged that he and others like him might have had unrealistic expectations of what Obama and a Democratic Congress could do - especially with the filibuster in the Senate. “Some made unrealistic expectations of Obama as a messianic figure,’’ Katz said.

Liberal blogs are loaded with complaints about Obama and demands that the president move to the left. During the campaign, “they energized enthusiasm among people who were really jazzed about voting for change. When you look at what happened, there’s not much change,’’ said Jane Hamsher, who pens a left-leaning blog, FireDogLake.

While Massachusetts Democrats are stunned at the apparent closeness of the race for Senate, they hope the situation will light a fire under the feet of disaffected voters who otherwise might stay home on Tuesday, presuming Coakley would win the heavily Democratic state.

Instead of playing down polls that show Coakley in real trouble, national Democrats have trumpeted them to rank-and-file members of the party, urging them to contribute cash and operate phone banks to get out the vote. National groups such as the Service Employees International Union and EMILY’s List have gotten heavily involved in the race, warning Democrats that Brown would take the country back to the policies of the Bush era.

The White House has been courting liberals of late. Obama has been brutally critical of Wall Street bankers who are scheduled to receive eight-figure bonuses, rhetoric that has a strong populist appeal. And Gibbs last week deemed “stupid’’ the comments of conservatives Rush Limbaugh and the Rev. Pat Robertson for their comments on Haiti. Limbaugh suggested Obama would use the crisis to appeal to black voters, while Robertson, a former presidential candidate, blamed the Haitian earthquake on a pact he said Haitians made with the devil to rid the country of French colonizers.

Organizing for America, created to keep the Obama grass-roots campaign network active, is also working to energize the Obama base. While the group has come under criticism by some activists for its top-down approach, Jeremy Bird, its deputy national director, said the group succeeded in getting 2.2 million people actively involved by writing letters to Congress or making phone calls on behalf of health care overhaul and other issues.

In Massachusetts, that activity could be critical, supporters said.

“There was a call to arms when the polls started coming out’’ showing Brown closing in on Coakley, said Nicole LaChapelle, a volunteer based in Easthampton.