White House Late to the Party on 2014 Message

When will Obama throw himself into the midterms — and deliver a message the Democrats can rally around?

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 28: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks during the Democratic National Committee's Winter Meeting at the Capitol Hilton February 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama said that the upcoming midterm elections will be a battle for the country's economic future and that Democrats will win with issues like the minimum wage, equal pay and college affordability. 
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George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
May 19, 2014, 1 a.m.

The poll­ster, a Demo­crat with sev­er­al House and Sen­ate can­did­ates on this year’s bal­lot, did not hes­it­ate for a second this week be­fore blurt­ing out an an­swer that cap­tured the anxi­ety of so many Demo­crats run­ning in 2014. Asked if he is con­cerned that it has taken the White House a while to settle on a co­her­ent polit­ic­al mes­sage, his an­swer was sar­cast­ic: “You mean, like five or six years?” After laugh­ing, the poll­ster ad­ded more softly, “I can’t ex­plain what they are do­ing or why.”

He is not alone. Many Demo­crats are wor­ried. They know the his­tory of how the parties of second-term pres­id­ents suf­fer in the midterm elec­tions. They know the “shel­lack­ing” they took in 2010 when they were held to ac­count for their sup­port of Pres­id­ent Obama’s policies. And they know their elect­or­al fates are tied in­ex­tric­ably to that of a pres­id­ent mired in the low-40s in voter ap­prov­al. They want him to take charge of his party’s polit­ic­al des­tiny with a strong mes­sage. “The Demo­crats na­tion­ally don’t have a mes­sage at all,” com­plains vet­er­an Ohio Demo­crat­ic strategist Jerry Aus­tin. “That’s what is troub­ling.”

In­side the White House, they don’t min­im­ize the con­cerns. After all, they read the same polls. But, ac­cord­ing to a top ad­viser to Obama, they have a few simple words for Demo­crats: Help is on the way. They in­sist that the pres­id­ent is ready to throw him­self in­to the cam­paign. More im­port­ant — be­cause many en­dangered Demo­crats are run­ning in states where Obama’s un­pop­ular­ity pre­cludes any per­son­al cam­paign­ing — they in­sist he is ready to ham­mer home a mes­sage that any Demo­crat can eas­ily em­brace.

The same ad­viser ac­know­ledged to Na­tion­al Journ­al that it has taken longer than planned for the pres­id­ent to ef­fect­ively push the mes­sage. “The last sev­en months have been aw­fully hec­tic,” the of­fi­cial said. “Health care and Ukraine took up a lot of air. The pres­id­ent hasn’t had a lot of time to make a polit­ic­al ar­gu­ment.”

That doesn’t mean he hasn’t tried. The cam­paign kick­off was sup­posed to come on Feb. 28, when the pres­id­ent ad­dressed the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee’s winter meet­ing at the Cap­it­al Hilton. “You’d bet­ter be ready to go,” Obama de­clared that af­ter­noon be­fore out­lining the themes and is­sues he be­lieves will lead to vic­tory in Novem­ber.

But few seemed to be listen­ing that day. Wash­ing­ton was more con­cerned with the pro-Rus­si­an gun­men seiz­ing key build­ings in Crimea and with the pres­id­ent’s 90-minute phone con­ver­sa­tion with Vladi­mir Putin. Last Thursday, dur­ing fun­draisers at private res­id­ences in San Diego and Los Angeles, Obama tried again to lay out the Demo­crat­ic strategy. Again, al­most no one out­side the events was pay­ing at­ten­tion.

“You haven’t really seen us make the ar­gu­ment yet,” the of­fi­cial said. “We are gauging the flow of the year. When we get past West Point and past Europe” — Obama will ad­dress the com­mence­ment ce­re­mony at the Mil­it­ary Academy on May 28 and will make a six-day trip to Po­land, Bel­gi­um, and France the next week — “then there will be time to fo­cus on this. We will get the mes­sage out.”

However, the chal­lenge — of­ten flubbed by both parties in off-year elec­tions — is hav­ing the mes­sage match what the voters want to hear. So far, 2014 has not been a ban­ner year for in­side-the-Belt­way talk mesh­ing with out­side-the-Belt­way con­cerns. Re­pub­lic­ans have spent re­sources in­vest­ig­at­ing Benghazi for a ninth time and fre­quently vot­ing to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act. Demo­crats have not been much bet­ter, fo­cus­ing on the spend­ing of the Koch broth­ers. The prob­lem is that these mes­sages are aimed more at par­tis­an bases than at or­din­ary voters. Benghazi and the IRS scan­dal “are there to give con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans a reas­on to get up and get out of their houses to vote on Elec­tion Day,” says long­time Re­pub­lic­an strategist Rich Ga­len. On the Demo­crat­ic side, fun­draisers in­sist that every time a sen­at­or at­tacks the Kochs, money pours in­to the cam­paign com­mit­tees.

But none of this reaches the av­er­age voter. Get­ting it wrong and mis­read­ing the elect­or­ate can have dis­astrous con­sequences for a party, most re­cently demon­strated by the Re­pub­lic­ans in 1998, Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s sixth year. In­stead of fo­cus­ing on the eco­nomy — as Demo­crats did — Re­pub­lic­ans were fix­ated on Clin­ton’s per­son­al scan­dals and spent the year try­ing to im­peach him. Voters broke with his­tory and re­war­ded Demo­crats. Dav­id Win­ston, who polls for the House and Sen­ate GOP lead­er­ship, keeps re­mind­ing Re­pub­lic­ans of that. “The po­ten­tial is there this year,” he says. “But it doesn’t mean you can’t have a bad strategy and can’t blow it. Just go back to ‘98. There we were sit­ting in the sixth year of a Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent. And the polit­ic­al folks picked the wrong strategy. That can take a good year and turn it in­to a bad one.”

Win­ston is happy when Re­pub­lic­ans boil their mes­sage down to four words: “Where are the jobs?” He points out that in 2010, 63 per­cent of voters said the eco­nomy was their top is­sue, and they went for Re­pub­lic­ans by 11 points. The second top is­sue was health care, cited by only 18 per­cent. And they voted 51 per­cent to 47 per­cent for Demo­crats. “It was the eco­nomy that won it for the Re­pub­lic­ans,” he says.

Demo­crats agree and are eager for the pres­id­ent to be more force­ful in mak­ing the case that they are the de­fend­ers of the middle class. They have a five-word ques­tion: “Whose side are you on?” To Jerry Aus­tin, it’s simple: “The party that de­liv­ers a mes­sage about what needs to be done for jobs and the eco­nomy and is ba­sic­ally a single note on that, they are the ones who are go­ing to win.” That the pres­id­ent has not yet ef­fect­ively made that case is why many Demo­crats are so con­cerned.

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