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Obama stumbles as parties get desperate

By Ed Rollins, CNN Senior Political Contributor
  • Ed Rollins: Ten weeks before Election Day, both parties desperate to find strategy to win
  • Democrats try to keep focus off economy, jobs, he says, while GOP looks for wedge issue
  • President's poll numbers sagging on issues most important to voters, Rollins writes
  • He says Obama resorting to measures, like supporting New York mosque, that hurt his party

Editor's note: Ed Rollins, a senior political contributor for CNN, is senior presidential fellow at the Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University. He is a principal with the Dilenschneider Group, a global public relations firm. He was White House political director for President Reagan and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

(CNN) -- With a little more than 10 weeks left to go, the rhetoric has accelerated and both sides are trying to find an issue that changes the dynamics of Election Day 2010.

The Democrats are desperate to turn the debate away from a sagging economy and chronic unemployment. The Republicans are trying desperately to find one more wedge issue that can knock out a couple more Democrats and assure the GOP of a House majority, or add another Senate seat or two to the five or six it thinks it will win.

And whatever the president tries to do, his sinking poll numbers are hurting his party, and Democrats are avoiding him in droves. "We have been able to deliver the most progressive legislative agenda -- one that helps working families -- not just in one generation, maybe two, maybe three," President Obama said Monday night at a Hollywood fundraiser.

Unfortunately for Obama and his Democratic allies, the country doesn't quite agree with him or his Hollywood supporters. On the issue of the economy, according to a Gallup Poll, the president gets a 38 percent approval rating and a 59 percent disapproval.

Of the 13 issues tested by Gallup, the president gets an approval rating of more than 50 percent on just one: his performance on race relations. Important, but not the issue foremost in voters' minds as Election Day nears.

The worst numbers for him are on his handling of the economy, the war in Afghanistan, the federal budget deficit and immigration. The problem for Democrats is that none of those important issues is fixable in the remaining weeks before the election.

In desperation, Obama tried to throw the old "Republicans are going to take away your Social Security" hand grenade that has been used unsuccessfully by Democrats since the days of former Rep. Tony Coelho and the late Speaker Tip O'Neill in the 1980s.

In his radio address Saturday, the president said that some Republican leaders in Congress are "pushing to make privatizing Social Security a key part of their legislative agenda if they win a majority in Congress this fall," and he went on to say this was "an ill-conceived idea that would add trillions of dollars to our budget deficit while tying your benefits to the whims of Wall Street traders and the ups and downs of the stock market."

The only problem is no Republican leader has offered such a proposal and no support exists for any such proposals. This was beneath the dignity of the presidency and was attacked by the Annenberg Public Policy Center's as "mostly false."

This story didn't get very far because the president had set himself and his party on an other unwinnable course by jumping into the middle of the ground zero Muslim mosque debate, which pits the builders and developers of the proposed New York mosque and cultural center against many of the families of 9/11 victims who oppose the project.

The president had it right in the first part of his opening sentence Friday night at the White House Ramadan dinner for a group of Muslim leaders when he stated: "Ground zero is indeed hallowed ground. But let me be clear. As a citizen and as president, I believe that Muslims have the right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country."

A period, an exclamation point or just about anything after that would have been perfect. But when he finished with: "and that includes the right to build a place of worship in a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan," he took sides and opened the floodgates. That may have cost his party several seats in November. By the next day, after being bombarded by vulnerable and angry Democrats, he waffled and tried to back away. But it was too late.

Unfortunately, a public already turned off to politics and politicians is only going to get more tired of it, if this is what we can expect for the remaining weeks of the campaign.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Rollins.