Analysis: Democrats target top Republican in elections

WASHINGTON Tue Sep 14, 2010 7:53pm EDT

U.S. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) is pictured alongside a stack of proposed health reform legislation during a bipartisan meeting at Blair House in Washington, February 25, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed

U.S. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) is pictured alongside a stack of proposed health reform legislation during a bipartisan meeting at Blair House in Washington, February 25, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has chosen a target in the congressional elections and it's John Boehner, the Republican leader who could decide the fate of the Democratic president's agenda next year.

With Democrats facing steep losses in November and polls indicating Boehner could be the next speaker of the House of Representatives, Obama has settled on the Ohio congressman as the centerpiece of his party's counterattack.

Boehner, 60, known for his perpetual tan and for being a close friend of big business, is little known in the country generally, but is being portrayed as a boogeyman by Democrats struggling to unite round a message.

"This November, John Boehner wants to welcome you to Boehnerland," said a new Democratic National Committee TV ad, painting the lawmaker as a man who jets round America with lobbyists and is closely tied in to the tobacco industry.

"They needed to do something to give themselves an energetic campaign strategy," said Daniel Amundson, research director at George Mason University's Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

Dispirited Democrats say the tactic can't hurt.

At the very least, it could light a spark among those supporters who would like to see Obama go on the attack. Republicans call it a sign of desperation that further dims any hope the president had of fostering bipartisanship.

Obama and other Democrats are portraying Boehner and his Republican colleagues as obstructionists who are too easy on big corporations and supported policies that drove the U.S. economy into recession under former President George W. Bush.

Were he to become speaker, Boehner would determine what legislation comes before Congress and could set off a chain of time-consuming investigations into the Obama administration.

"There were no new policies for Mr. Boehner. There were no new ideas," Obama said in a speech last week in Boehner's home state. It was a pointed response to a sharp attack from Boehner also in Ohio the previous week.

In his speech, Obama blasted Republicans for backing an extension of tax cuts for the rich and lacking sympathy for the middle class.

Obama also targeted Boehner repeatedly by name at a White House press conference and a meeting with voters in Virginia.

Some analysts question the approach.

"It further deteriorates the president's brand," Republican strategist Alex Conant said. "He ran as a sort of positive, hopeful uniter ... and if we're going to spend the next 50 days seeing him on TV being hyperpartisan that will make it even harder for him trying to come back to the middle for his re-election campaign (in 2012)."

ENERGIZING THE BASE?

Boehner would succeed Democrat Nancy Pelosi as speaker if Republicans win a majority of the 435 seats in the House in the November 2 elections.

"At this point I think they're trying to hold onto their base and get them to turn out for the midterms because they know they're going to lose lots of seats," said Dana Perino, who was press secretary for Bush.

The attack-Boehner strategy may have had some effect on a key issue in the election campaign -- whether tax cuts passed under Bush that are due to expire at the end of this year should be extended.

Obama wants to preserve a tax cut for families making less than $250,000 a year, but not for those making more. Republicans want to extend tax cuts for both the middle class and the wealthy, saying raising taxes on anyone as the economy struggles to emerge from recession will cut jobs.

The Republican leader hinted at compromise on the issue, saying he would support extended tax cuts for the middle class even if cuts for the wealthy are allowed to expire, although he would prefer extending all of them.

"If the only option I have is to vote for some of those tax reductions, I'll vote for it," Boehner said on Sunday on CBS.

In Boehner, Obama has picked a target relatively unknown outside Washington and his home state.

A CNN/Opinion Research Poll this month showed that 39 percent of Americans had never heard of him, 22 percent had a favorable view of him, 23 percent had an unfavorable one and 16 percent had no opinion.

But with voters angry over a sputtering economy and U.S. unemployment at 9.6 percent, any distraction could help the Democrats.

"The more the press -- and, particularly, cable television -- spends its time on Boehner and what Republicans will do if they win the majority, the less time they have to talk about the economy and what the Obama administration is doing about it," political columnist Chris Cillizza wrote on www.washingtonpost.com.

(Editing by Patricia Wilson and David Storey)