Democrats finally go on the attack

After months of blaming George W. Bush for the economic hole the country is in, and blaming the Republicans as the Party of No for not helping to dig it out, President Barack Obama has finally begun to take a different tack.

He and his surrogates on the campaign trail are now busily selling his administration's accomplishments, so severely assaulted by GOP congressional leaders Mitch McConnell in the Senate and John Boehner in the House, and by Republican candidates everywhere.

With a prod from Vice President Joe Biden to stop "whining" and to start doing a better job explaining what has been achieved in Mr. Obama's 20 months of tenure, the Democrats are pivoting to statistical and moral defenses on varying fronts, from job-saving to expanded health care.

The president and struggling congressional incumbents alike have been trumpeting the job benefits from local and state roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects financed with stimulus-package funds. And they have begun reminding voters of such immediate health care bounties as the end to denials based on pre-existing medical conditions and the extension of coverage for dependents through age 26.

Clearly, it's a hard sell in a stubborn economic recovery, whose greatest challenge is the persisting national unemployment rate of almost 10 percent. But the latest public opinion surveys indicate some traction for the Democrats against a widely predicted political disaster Nov. 2.

The latest Washington Post/ABC News Poll shows a mild improvement for the party in power. Although 49 percent of the 1,002 respondents contacted by phone said they intend to vote for a Republican in upcoming congressional elections, with only 43 percent favoring a Democrat, the GOP margin has shrunk from a 13 percent lead a month ago.

Furthermore, registered voters gave Democratic incumbents in Congress a 35 percent to 28 percent approval edge over Republican incumbents, and they expressed strong support for their individual members. These results support the Democratic strategy of focusing on individual local House and Senate races to combat national disfavor with broad unemployment and other conditions, which the Republicans hope to use to "nationalize" the election.

The tardy Democratic strategy of accentuating the positive in the Obama legislative record is an effort to counter the relentless assault on it by a Republican congressional leadership, which has marched its membership in lockstep against virtually every major Obama proposal.

One element of the intensified Democratic response was the detailed assessment Mr. Biden gave last week as the administration's overseer of the progress of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. As The Washington Post reported, the stimulus package, originally calculated at $787 billion over 10 years and subsequently refigured at $814 billion, was being spent on time and within its budget.

The report said that by the end of September, 70 percent of the original amount, or $551 billion, had been spent and dispersed in the timely way promised, countering repeated Republican charges that the stimulus money was being wasted and was ineffective in combating the worst recession since the Great Depression.

The bulk of the outlay, the report said, included $242 billion in tax breaks to families and businesses, another $232 billion to states to relieve financial burdens on jobless workers and other hardship cases, and $77 billion for local public-works undertakings.

A significant finding of the report was the low evidence of fraud in doling out these huge amounts of taxpayer money, with allegations against less than 2 percent of the payouts made. But even Mr. Biden's principal economic adviser, Jared Bernstein, in commenting on the report, acknowledged that more had to be done publicizing it to have any appreciable influence on next month's voting.

Still, the latest polling data, as well as historical trends of political loyalists "coming home" to their party and of typical rates as high as 95 percent of congressional incumbents retaining their seats, are fanning Democrats' hopes of weathering the impending negative storm against them so widely predicted.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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