It went practically unnoticed amid the flurry of coverage of the Massachusetts Senate.
President Obama was about 15 minutes through stumping for attorney general Martha Coakley (D) in Boston when a heckler's voice broke through the applause.
"Abortion!" the man cried, waving a sign that read, "Jesus Loves All Babies."
Obama was immediately taken off his stride. He paused for a moment, then tried to go on: "You -- you -- you need somebody --"
But the man continued yelling: "Innocent blood!"
The crowd booed. Some women screamed. Eventually, the crowd started cheering Coakley's name in an effort to drown the man out until police took him away -- a tactic that worked, until an 8-year-old boy took up the haranguing where the man left off.
"It's all right," the flustered-looking POTUS said over the tiny, piercing voice. "Hold up everybody. Hold up. Now, more than ever, you don't need" -- he paused for several more moments -- "just another politician who talks the talk."
The boy's shouting continued. "And you don't need just people yelling at each other," Obama continued. "Right now, what we need is somebody who's got a proven track record, a leader who has walked the walk."
The crowd applauded. The yelling stopped. And Obama, at last, continued on with his speech.
It was a telling moment in a campaign fraught with national significance. The POTUS, flown in to help inject life into Coakley's floundering bid, instead allowed himself to get upstaged by angry protesters. He seemed to lack the sense of passion that had been motivating voters across the country -- a passion that explained, at least in part, Sen.-elect Scott Brown's (R) upset victory.
The exchange was also indicative of a broader problem facing Democrats as they head into this year's midterms: How will they respond to voters' frustration and anger?
Obama may have unwittingly hit on part of the answer when he told the Boston crowd, "You don't need just people yelling at each other." If they're to recoup for the midterms, Democrats will need to figure out a way going forward that they can channel that anger in a positive direction.
In an interview, former Obama deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand previewed what that message might sound like -- one that eschews partisanship in favor of solutions. Hildebrand said that, especially on health care, Democrats need to do a better job of convincing voters what they're "for," and what the real-world impact of reform means in voters' own lives.
"I really believe if they're going to get health care passed, they need to go out and reinforce to the American people what the legislation actually does," Hildebrand said. "Because that's gotten lost in all of the political shuffle. And they need the backing of the American people to do this."
In his maiden State of the Union address last night, Obama had his first opportunity since Massachusetts to supply that direction -- and while he articulated voters' anger better than he had in his showdown with the Boston hecklers, he only partially channeled it toward concrete solutions.
Obama devoted the opening of his address to acknowledging the hardships the economic downturn has caused everyday Americans. He pointed out the "burden of working harder and longer for less," the difficulty of finding "a job that pays the bills." He offered his empathy to voters, noting that "for these Americans and so many others, change has not come fast enough."
When it came to finding a target for voters' anger, Obama didn't channel it in one particular direction, however. CEOs, lobbyists, the previous administration, Washington "politics as usual" and TV pundits each took their turn in the spotlight, but none was singled out as the main object of his ire. The president instead tried to harness voter anger to argue for an array of policy proposals on the economy.
Ultimately, the reception of Obama's State of the Union will help determine whether the national party has ceded what could be called the "angry indie" vote to the GOP, as they seemed to in Massachusetts.
Part of Brown's success was his emphasis on carrying the voters' message with him to D.C., a theme he struck in his victory speech with the line, "I am nobody's senator but yours." By contrast, Obama's visit to stump for Coakley in Massachusetts only served to highlight the image that Democratic voters weren't sending a message -- they were receiving a message, a mandate even, from national Democrats.
Speaking shortly before Obama took the stage that Sunday in Boston, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the dean of the state's congressional delegation, portrayed the race in the most national of terms, ominously telling the crowd, "Right-wing money from all across America -- Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi -- is just pouring into Massachusetts so that they can buy their 41st vote in the United States Senate to block Barack Obama's agenda." In short: Vote for Coakley so that Obama doesn't fail.
While Brown, too, made the race in Massachusetts part of something larger, he did it from a bottom-up, not a top-down, perspective, telling audiences, "What happened here can happen all across America." That's the kind of message that helped Obama win in 2008.
Both candidate Obama and candidate Brown channeled the anger in a specific direction or message, making it clear what they're "for," instead of simply what they're "against." At one Brown event, for instance, the candidate was decrying the Coakley campaign's negative attacks when a man in the crowd cried out: "What do you expect from liberals?"
Amid laughs from the crowd, Brown acknowledged the man, but continued: "It's not about liberals or conservatives. It's about the way you run a campaign." It was a deft move that effectively channeled voters' anger away from "liberals" and toward negative campaigning itself -- reinforcing his message of being a voice of "balance" and "independence" in the Senate, an outsider who could rise above the negative campaigning.
Democrats, by contrast, channeled anger backwards, toward George W. Bush. That argument, however, wasn't credible -- Scott Brown was a state senator when Bush was in office and had few, if any, Washington connections -- and in the end it didn't slow Brown's march to victory.
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