Obama Finally Delivers a Campaign Message. Is It Too Late?

The president offered a robust defense of the economy and his signature health care bill.

For six months, frustrated White House aides have been promising that President Obama would do more than just raise money for embattled Democratic candidates, that he would set out a message that could carry those candidates to the finish line Nov. 4. On Thursday, he finally did that with a speech at Northwestern University that offered a stout defense of his record and tried to chart an economic course forward.

Coming only 33 days before Election Day and long after the dynamic has been set in most of the contested races, it may prove ineffective, particularly if the president does not follow through and repeat his message in the days ahead. Indeed, Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, warned Thursday that it is "possibly too little too late for Democrats on the ballot who would have benefited from a strong economic populist message all year long." Green has long championed a more aggressive stance by Obama and calls economic populism "a political winner."

This type of populism, with its critique of wage disparities and policies that favor the top economic strata, is nothing new for Democrats. It is almost always the go-to pitch when turnout is in doubt and the party's fate is in the hands of have-nots with spotty voting records. It was to this group—to those who often don't vote in non-presidential years—that Obama spoke directly. "I am not on the ballot this fall," he told them. "But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them."

The question is why the White House couldn't find a way to get Obama out there earlier to help start a national conversation that could provide some guidance for candidates who are running this year. The response is often a shrug of the shoulders and a mention of all the foreign crises of recent months. The president even seemed to be giving voice to that frustration when he told the students, "I want to step back from the rush of global events to take a clear-eyed look at our economy, its successes and shortcomings, and what we still need to build for your generation."

It is not that the points of the Northwestern speech were new. Nor that he had never voiced them before. He had in interviews. And he had at most of the many fundraisers he has attended. But none had the power or the punch of a serious presidential address, on television, in a public arena. And none had the coherence of this speech.

And none had something else featured at Northwestern: The president attempted one of his rare sustained defenses of his embattled health care overhaul. One of the mysteries of the Obama presidency has been his surrender of the field to the many critics of the Affordable Care Act and his failure to offer more than sporadic defenses of it. In the 2012 campaign, he was content to speak of other things, giving only one strong speech on it, in Virginia. Even at the Charlotte convention that renominated him, he left the defense of Obamacare to former President Clinton. That may have satisfied other Democratic candidates who were happy to put the controversial measure on the side. But it left the president and his party badly on the defensive and let the attacks largely go unchallenged.

At Northwestern, that ended—at least for one day and one speech. On this day, health care reform was a "cornerstone" of his program, bringing "dramatic" benefits and the equivalent of a "$1,800 tax cut" to Americans whose health insurance is provided by employers.

The challenge, of course, is that voters are not going to accept at face value such assertions by the president. Nor are they going to improve their assessment of the state of the economy simply because the president offers what he called "a lot of good statistics" showing that the recovery is robust. As he acknowledged, "Sometimes the noise clutters and confuses the nature of the reality out there."

And Republicans sought to poke holes in Obama's message. House Speaker John Boehner's office issued a statement mocking Thursday's speech for offering either the wrong prescriptions, or potentially good ones that have gone nowhere because of Democrats' alleged obstruction.

"The president says a true opposition party should offer ideas—well, we've done that and then some," Boehner's office said, "passing dozens of good jobs bills that are stuck in his party's Senate. This has been, and will continue to be, our focus. Americans are still waiting for the president and his party to make it theirs as well."

For many Americans, the Northwestern speech is just more noise and more clutter—even if he laughably contended that it "isn't a political speech." The question is whether it was an effective political speech. And that will only happen if the White House finds a way to follow it up with effective steps to alter a grim political dynamic in the few days left.