Washington: The Politics Page

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Photo-Illustration by Wes Duvall for TIME; Obama: Emily Anne Epstein/Getty Images

Obama in a Political Vise

Mark Halperin's Take: Obama in a Political Vise

The last time the U.S. held midterm elections--in 2006, roughly a million political years ago--Barack Obama was the hottest thing going. Fresh off his 2004 keynote national convention speech and in the midst of a splashy book tour, the Illinois Senator was the single most sought-after figure on the fundraising circuit and campaign trail. Democrats were particularly enthralled by Obama's unmatched capacity to go anywhere in the country, even the reddest of red areas, and create excitement. He was postpartisan, and his appeal spanned racial, class and geographic lines.

Now as that same politician embarks on another coast-to-coast, midterm barnstormer to help elect Democrats, he is encountering a very different reception. The President is being crushed in a political vise: from above by elite opinion about his competence and from below by mass anger and anxiety over unemployment. And it is too late for him to do anything about this predicament until after November's elections.

While Obama is again scheduled to travel all across the country, he will be confined this time to big cities and the coasts, where he can appeal to the kind of urban, labor, liberal and upscale constituencies that are the core of the traditional Democratic Party.

The good news for Obama is that no matter what the election's outcome, everything changes in January. Republicans will have a greater obligation, politically and morally, to govern rather than merely thwart and badger. The President will get a chance in his State of the Union address to show that he is turning the page on the political horrors of 2010 for his party and the nation. But before then, Republicans are almost certainly going to demonstrate that you can indeed beat something with nothing.