Can Obama Deliver Votes In 2014?

“He’s the problem,” a strategist said. “He should stay away.”

The strategist, in this case, was a Republican and the year was 2006, when George W. Bush’s approval rating had sagged so low that few GOP candidates on the midterm ballot wanted to be in the same area code. But it could just as easily be Democrats talking about President Obama today.

Two polls this week gave fresh ache to what strategists have been feeling in their guts for some time: that Obama’s tumbling marks are dragging down hopes of retaining Senate control and reclaiming territory in the House.

The numbers—from the Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor and ABC News/Washington Post polls—have given fresh urgency to a question that has been haunting the White House and the Democratic Party for weeks: What do you do with a president who’s being abandoned by voters—particularly independents—in droves?

Unlike four years ago, when Obama was frequently criticized for being disengaged as issues surrounding his economic and legislative agenda were getting Democratic candidates pummeled, the White House has signaled that it will take a more active approach this time, with a revamped internal political operation. The president has made it sound like he doesn’t want to sit on the sidelines, telling a crowd at a fundraiser last month that Democrats paid “a dear price” for being “sleepy” in the 2010 midterms.

But even if Air Force One is fueled up and ready to go, what’s the flight plan?

At the very least, the president is expected to continue raising money nationwide, a task at which he continues to excel—and which is all the more urgent given the recent Supreme Court ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC that made wealthy donors more pivotal than ever. Democrats say that’s the single most critical way he can make a difference, both to help candidates counter attacks from third-party groups and finance GOTV operations.

But beyond that, there are ways in which Obama’s role could be different than Bush’s eight years ago. Then, Bush largely campaigned in friendly states such as Texas and Georgia and avoided battlegrounds. Obama may not be so constrained. He may be the only figure, strategists say, who can drive those to vote who would otherwise stay home.

Sen. Mark Pryor, in a tight battle in Arkansas, is looking for help from the former president, not the current one. For Pryor, “it’s give me Bill Clinton or give me death,” cracks Ford O’Connell, a Republican consultant.

O’Connell says Obama should let Clinton do much of the heavy lifting, particularly in the South, as the ex-president gathers chits for a potential Hillary Clinton run in 2016. “He’s seen as more respected,” O’Connell says.

The most aggressive move, strategists say, would be to send Obama to Atlanta in an effort to get out the black vote for Michelle Nunn, the Democratic Senate candidate in Georgia, or even to Louisville, to try and bolster Alison Lundergan Grimes against Sen. Mitch McConnell.

But those moves carry great risk, says O’Connell, the Republican strategist, by potentially galvanizing Republicans and dragging down two candidates who have taken pains to paint themselves as Washington outsiders. Obama to Kentucky, he says, would elevate McConnell and allow him to boast that it took a president to try and stop him. And should McConnell become the leader of a new Republican Senate, that’s something this president would never live down.

Read more from James Oliphant at NationalJournal.com

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Analysis & Political Strategy