WASHINGTON -- The Democrats are going to lose this fall if voters render judgment on the nation's sputtering economy. That's not the forecast of some political analyst or the wishful thinking of a Republican leader. It's the blunt acknowledgment from President Barack Obama himself.
And it explains why Democrats from the White House on down are trying to cast this election as a choice between Democrats who say they stopped the economic slide and Republicans who caused it. That may be the only way Obama's party can retain its hold on the House, and possibly the Senate, given an unemployment rate hovering near 10 percent and a sluggish recovery from a prolonged recession.
"If people take a look at what Democrats stand for and what Republicans stand for, who we're fighting for and who they're fighting for, then we will win," Obama told ABC News in an interview broadcast Thursday. "And so, my challenge, and the challenge of every Democratic candidate who's out there is just making sure the people understand there's a choice here."
But, he added: "If the election is a referendum on are people satisfied about the economy as it currently is, then we're not going to do well. Because I think everybody feels like this economy needs to do better than it's been doing."
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Facing devastating poll numbers and prospects of high double-digit losses, Democratic House and Senate candidates have spent much of the summer trying to localize races while characterizing GOP rivals as extremes who would gut Social Security and Medicare and eliminate various departments and agencies. They've warned of a likely return to George W. Bush-era policies.
Republicans, in turn, have tried to nationalize the Nov. 2 elections by focusing on the economy and Obama's stewardship. The GOP claims that Democrats are pushing the wrong economic fixes and that new leadership is needed.
The interview was the first time Obama delivered such a candid assessment of how much the economy is dragging down the party in power. And the comment was striking both for its message - ominous for Democrats - and its messenger - the party's leader.
Obama clearly was using the bully pulpit to set the parameters of the next seven weeks, if not set expectations for the general election outcome.
He also may have been trying to underscore the stakes for two audiences - independent voters, who fled the party because of what they call his big-spending, big-government policies, and despondent Democrats, who the party desperately needs to turn out to vote.
In the election homestretch, Obama is trying to convince voters that Democrats are working hard to get the economy moving and get millions of jobless Americans back to work while arguing that Republicans would return to the "failed policies" of George W. Bush.
"We are now making progress. The economy is growing, although it's growing too slowly," Obama said in the interview. "When you look at what the Republicans are offering, it is exactly the same as what landed us in this mess in the first place."
In interviews and on the campaign trail, the president has spent this week - the traditional post-Labor Day kickoff - more fully engaging in the midterm elections.
He rolled out a trio of new proposals to help spur job growth, criticized Republicans like House GOP leader John Boehner by name, and outlined the stark choice voters face in November.
He transferred another $4.5 million from his Obama for America presidential campaign fund to the party's top campaign committees to pay for advertising and to organize get-out-the-vote efforts; the cash came on top of $8 million he already shelled out.
Obama also has a busy fall travel schedule that includes at least four major rallies in the swing states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada and a teletown hall aimed at ensuring that Democrats are - as Obama likes to say - "fired up, ready to go" as they were two years ago.
It's the kind of stepped-up involvement that House and Senate Democrats have pleaded for all year.
Democrats also have been clamoring for a more sustained focus on the economy, and Obama offered his proposals this week. But it may be too little, too late.
No one expects the national unemployment rate - now at 9.6 percent - to fall much if at all between now and November. And it's unlikely that Congress will pass Obama's fresh economic plans before the election, much less allow tax rates to rise for the wealthiest Americans as he wants.
Republicans oppose the plans. Some Democrats do, too.
"I will not support additional spending in a second stimulus package," said Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who is in a tough re-election fight - exposing Democratic divisions that, like pre-election polls, don't bode well for the president.