MADISON, Wis. — Buck up. Stop whining. And get to work.
Clearly frustrated by Republicans' energy – and his own party's lack of enthusiasm – President Barack Obama scolded fellow Democrats even as he rallied them Tuesday in an effort to save the party from big GOP gains in the crucial midterm elections. In the final month of campaigning, he's trying to re-energize young voters, despondent liberals and other Democrats whose excitement over his election has dissipated.
"It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines," the president declared in a Rolling Stone magazine interview. He said that supposed supporters who are "sitting on their hands complaining" are irresponsible because the consequences of Republican congressional victories could be dashed Democratic plans.
He gave an example during a backyard conversation with New Mexico voters, arguing that Republicans would reverse the progress he's made on education reform and student aid. "That's the choice that we've got in this election," Obama said, underscoring the stakes of Nov. 2.
Later, at an outdoor rally at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the president urged thousands of students to stay as inspired and involved in this election as they were two years ago.
"We can't let this country fall backwards because the rest of us didn't care enough to fight," he said to loud applause.
It was the first of four large rallies planned for the campaign homestretch as the president tries to rekindle some of his 2008 campaign magic and fire up young supporters and others who helped elect Obama but who Democrats fear may stay home this fall. Top lieutenants Vice President Joe Biden, Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine and Cabinet members also fanned out on other college campuses to call party foot soldiers to action.
At Penn State University in State College, Pa., Biden noted he was criticized a day earlier in New Hampshire for urging Democrats to "remind our base constituency to stop whining and get out there and look at the alternatives."
"All I heard when I got here in Happy Valley was the roar of lions. Folks, it's time for us to roar," Biden said, pressing his audience to knock on doors, make phone calls and commit to vote.
With the elections looming, the White House and Democratic Party are focused primarily on trying to compel their core voters – liberals and minority groups – as well as the ideologically broad coalition that helped elect Obama in 2008 to participate in the first congressional elections of his presidency.
They have little choice.
Midterm contests largely turn on which party can get out more of its backers. And polls show that Republicans are far more enthusiastic this year partly because of tea party anger. Also, polls show Democrats can't count on independent voters who carried them to victory in consecutive national elections.
Mindful of that and armed with polling, the White House has started arguing that voters who backed Obama in 2008 must turn out for Democrats this year because the GOP wants to undo what the president has accomplished.
"We are focused on motivation, not laying blame or pointing fingers, because the consequences for sitting this election out could be disastrous," said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director.
White House aides said House Republicans "Pledge to America" last week made it easier for Obama to do something he's been trying for weeks: to frame the election as a choice between Democrats' ideas and Republicans' proposals. By signaling plans for deep spending cuts in popular areas such as education, officials said, the GOP pledge presented an opportunity for the White House to remind voters, and particularly the base, what's at stake in November.
Aides say Obama was trying to underscore those stakes in his interview with Rolling Stone, and the final-stretch strategy – in everything from rhetoric to events – is to underscore that midterm elections have consequences.
"People need to shake off this lethargy. People need to buck up," Obama said in the interview. "Bringing about change is hard – that's what I said during the campaign."
"But if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren't serious in the first place," Obama said.
He was speaking to all Democrats, including first-time voters in 2008 and liberals who have complained that Obama sacrificed his campaign promises on health care and national security for legislative compromise.
Democratic-leaning groups have largely been missing from the TV airwaves this fall as GOP-aligned organizations pummel Democratic House and Senate candidates with attack ads. Seeing allies outspent 6-1, White House aides recently decided to use that disparity to compel their base to vote.
Several Democratic strategists privately fear that the strategy to motivate Democrats with sternness could backfire partly because it runs counter to Obama's carefully cultivated hopeful, uplifting image. There's also some concern that it could further alienate liberals and other Democratic critics who don't think Obama has done enough to pursue issues important to them.
"It's not helpful," said John Aravosis, the editor of the progressive AMERICAblog.com. "The base is depressed and they're depressing it even more, and it's not clear why."
Said DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas: "They wouldn't be in this predicament if they delivered on their campaign promises, rather than waste the last two years putting bipartisanship above action."
Obama's tough-love comments came just days before more than 300 liberal groups planned to participate in a rally on the National Mall on Saturday.
During the three-day trip, Obama also was trying to counter the notion that he's out of touch as well as sway undecided voters with a series of backyard visits – in Albuquerque, Des Moines, Iowa; and Richmond, Va. – that give him time to explain his policies in everyday settings. He's recently embraced this form of intimate-but-televised event to defend and explain his record on the economy, health care and other topics.
Sidoti reported from Washington.