SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — What does President Barack Obama’s visit to California this week on behalf of embattled Sen. Barbara Boxer have to do with passage of the financial reform bill? Far more than you’d imagine.

That Boxer is in any trouble says much of what you need to know about this year’s election. California has become a Democratic bastion and Boxer has been a liberal institution who never before faced a serious re-election challenge.

Now she is seen as sufficiently vulnerable that Obama will come to the state for another fundraiser for her next month. The threat to Boxer is grim news for Democrats.

Is this sense of the election about to be overtaken? That’s where financial reform comes in. If health care legislation had to fight uphill against a public mood that is skeptical of government’s capacities, the financial reform bill Democrats are pushing has the advantage of flowing with a public view devoutly critical of Wall Street, bankers and all their works.

And for the first time in Obama’s presidency, Republicans are uncertain as to whether resolute opposition to a Democratic idea is in their political interest. There are strong indications that the GOP would prefer to avoid an all-out confrontation over re-regulating the financial system, and several Republican senators are saying that they would like to negotiate with Democrats on this one. Suddenly, it’s Democrats — and, in particular, the often conflict-averse Obama — who are relishing a fight.

This raises what may be the essential question for the campaign: Can Democrats finally put the Republicans on the defensive?

Obama is betting that they can. His speech at a fundraiser for Boxer in Los Angeles on Monday offered a template for a new Happy Warrior president. After a year in which he repeatedly and almost apologetically insisted that he was — really, really — trying as hard as he could to work with Republicans, he turned the beat around and asked why Republicans weren’t willing to work with him.

He used his praise of Boxer — “she wants to cooperate with folks on the other side of the aisle where she can, but she’s willing to fight where she has to” — as a pivot to what he hopes will be a central theme of this year’s national election campaign. His words about Boxer, he said, were “not a bad adage … for the Democratic Party.”

“In this entire year and a half of cleaning up the mess, it’s been tough because the folks very responsible for a large portion of this mess decided to stand on the sidelines,” Obama declared. “It was as if somebody had driven their car into the ditch and then just watched you as you had to yank it out, and asked you, ‘Why didn’t you do it faster — and why do I have that scratch on the fender?’ And you want to say, why don’t you put your shoulder up against that car and help to push? That’s what we need, is some help.”

In one paragraph, Obama did what many of the dispirited in his party have long been urging him to do: He linked the economic mess to past Republican policies — much as Ronald Reagan blamed the economic downturn of the early 1980s on Democrats and liberals — and turned the tables on bipartisanship by asserting that it is Republicans who are blocking concord.

And then he connected this argument to the struggle over financial reform, aimed at changing “a situation where people are allowed to take wild risks and all the downsides are socialized even as the profits are privatized.” Obama said that “some of the rhetoric that’s coming out of the other side of the aisle” suggested that Republicans “so far, at least, don’t seem to acknowledge that we’re going to have to make some tough decisions and reform the system.”

Note the words “so far, at least.” Democrats clearly see financial reform as a winner either way. With Republican cooperation, they have a bill. With Republican obstruction, they have an election issue. For once, Democrats are negotiating from strength.

No one doubts the Democrats are in a deep electoral hole. But Obama has now joined the battle with a strategy to transform the election from a referendum on his own party into a contest with a Republican Party the public doesn’t much like, either. Boxer’s fate, but also the fate of a lot of other Democrats, hangs on its success.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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