“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.
“He can turn out the casual voters,” says Steve Murphy, a Democratic consultant in Virginia. “Turnout is our challenge.”
Democrats need the so-called “coalition of the ascendant” — minorities, young people, and upscale women — to be convinced to vote in midterms the way they come out in presidential years. That means the president could play a role in states where some might think he should stay away, such as in North Carolina where freshman Sen. Kay Hagan is viewed as vulnerable and where Obama has a negative approval rating. “Obama can be a huge plus in Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, even Greensboro,” says Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist in the state.
Hagan was elected to the Senate on the strength of the Obama wave in 2008 — and some vestige of that may be her best hope to return. “If she is successful,” Jackson says, “it’s because these folks have turned out.”
Much was made of Hagan’s decision earlier this year to stay away from an Obama event in Raleigh, but Jackson dismisses the idea that Obama’s presence would be toxic to her chances. “Obama’s already been in every ad that’s been used against Hagan,” he says. “You’re getting all the bad already. You might as well get the good.”
Obama could play a similar role in Virginia in efforts to buttress Sen. Mark Warner’s campaign, strategists say, as well as in Michigan, where he still enjoys relative popularity. Obama recently criticized GOP Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land at a fundraising event, showing that the race is on his radar.
In Colorado, where Sen. Mark Udall faces a tough challenge from Rep. Cory Gardner, Obama could be a critical in delivering voters in a place that typically sees a 15 percent drop-off in Democratic turnout from the presidential cycle. “Suburban women love him,” says Ted Trimpa, a Denver-based strategist.
But there may be limits to where the president can go and what he can do. “I think the South is a different matter,” Murphy says.
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.
Clinton will headline a Democratic dinner in Florida in June as the party goes all-in to try and help former Gov. Charlie Crist unseat Republican Gov. Rick Scott. But it’s possible Obama could play in the state; he’s still popular in South Florida, and two South Florida Democrats, Reps. Patrick Murphy and Joe Garcia, face tough races.
A dicier question involves Louisiana, where Sen. Mary Landrieu has taken pains to keep distance from the president, suggesting tweaks to the Affordable Care Act and criticizing his energy policy. Landrieu polls better than Obama, and the thinking is that it’s better for her if he stays off stage. Last month, Louisiana native James Carville, the former Clinton adviser, told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that he wouldn’t advise Landrieu to bring Obama for help.
But under Louisiana’s unusual system, if she fails to secure 50 percent of the vote in November, she’ll face a runoff with her Republican opponent. In that scenario, the thinking goes, it’s possible Obama could be an asset to drive African-American turnout in New Orleans and elsewhere.
The thinking, too, is that Obama stays away from New Hampshire — unless former GOP Sen. Scott Brown’s candidacy catches fire and threatens Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. Montana and South Dakota, both states with vulnerable Democrats, figure to be nonstarters for the president.
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.