Obama’s role in fall midterms: Walk a fine line


President Obama, whose overall approval rating has been low all year, will have to tread carefully as the midterm elections draw near. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)
Dan Balz
Chief correspondent August 2

What is the line President Obama must walk between now and November? A political strategist who did not want to be identified framed it succinctly: For the next three months, Obama must be a partisan warrior, but not a petty partisan warrior.

The president remains at the center of this election year, as are all presidents in midterm elections. He is criticized for moving too slowly or ineffectively in dealing with crises around the world. Perceptions of his strength as a leader have taken a hit. His party’s success or failure this November will depend in part on how effective he is at mitigating these liabilities.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

He is a drag because his overall approval rating has been low all year. His approval in red states is even lower, and with white voters in those states it is no doubt lower still. His ratings on specific issues are generally worse.

A recent Gallup poll showed his approval rating on immigration dropping, with just 3 in 10 Americans giving him positive marks. His foreign policy ratings have flagged. His marks on the economy have not yet improved even as the economy has. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that disapproval of the Affordable Care Act jumped in July and now is “as unpopular as it has been since it was enacted four years ago.” Administration officials had predicted otherwise.

Obama is not welcome in many states with competitive Senate races. He has never been welcome in most of them, not in 2008 when he was the aspirational candidate and not in 2012 when the country was deeply polarized around his presidency. Embattled incumbents will run with that weight on their shoulders. In blue and purple states, he may not be a significant drag, but he is not particularly helpful to candidates in those places.

Yet he is an obvious asset in rallying the party’s base, even in states where he is not welcome, which is of vital importance given the Republicans’ current enthusiasm advantage. Obama is still better at that role than perhaps anyone else in the party. The only person close would be former president Bill Clinton. But Obama’s appeal in the African American community eclipses that of Clinton, and African American votes will be critically important in many Senate races this fall, especially in some of the Southern states where Democratic incumbents need a big turnout.

What constitutes a game plan for the president? Conversations with Democrats, some who know Obama well, suggest the White House will pursue some tested strategies designed to offset Republican enthusiasm and give embattled Democratic candidates a better chance of avoiding defeat. Some will be highly visible; others will not be.

The first priority will be to continue to do what Obama has been doing, which is to carry out an aggressive fundraising schedule. No one can raise money better than a sitting president, and Obama’s willingness to attend fundraisers at recent times when the world was in flames gives everyone a clear sense of the political priority Democrats put on keeping him on schedule.

A second strategy will come later this fall. One administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about internal matters said targeted messages, aimed at key constituencies, would be employed as the election nears. Think of it as the next chapter in “Between Two Ferns,” the online comedy series Obama used successfully in the spring to recruit young people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act.

The messaging will include call-ins to African American radio in states where the president can’t personally show up, special appeals to women and narrowcasting to voters through social media and other platforms.

Referring to the strategy the White House employed to boost registration for the Affordable Care Act in the spring, the administration official said: “There wasn’t hundreds of millions of dollars of paid media, but he was on a daily basis communicating with targeted voters using social media and other platforms. Don’t be surprised if you see that kind of engagement for young women, African Americans and Hispanic voters.”

The president is in a raging battle with Republicans, one that has become more personalized and bitter by the month. Republicans in the House recently voted to sue him. Some grass-roots Republicans want to impeach him. He has never had a relationship with most opposition leaders. His relationship with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is in tatters, with the two reduced to trading barbed comments from long distance.

Obama must engage aggressively, his Democratic allies say. Their fear is that, if this election ends up framed by the Republicans as a referendum on the president, the Democratic Party could suffer in November. Obama’s responsibility, as much or more than individual candidates, will be to make the choice about something else. Democrats believe he will have plenty of ammunition, given the unpopularity of the Republican Party, and particularly the tea party wing, among the swing voters left in the electorate.

But there are risks. One is the degree to which events take center stage and how Obama responds to them. His penchant for deliberation, for playing the long game and not overreacting, can become a liability when he is perceived not to be on top of things and leading.

That perception is there and hesitation on the part of the White House in the face of crises will only feed it. “Going into the last part of this election, it is important for the president to be out front and forceful about what America is doing,” said Robert Gibbs, a former White House press secretary for Obama.

The other risk is that, as Obama attempts to answer the Republicans, he does become petulant, as he has done at times over the summer. His lack of respect for the opposition is evident, but strategists say Americans expect presidents to remain somewhat above the pettiness of so much of today’s political discourse. To frame the election, Obama cannot afford to be tuned out or dismissed by persuadable voters.

The administration official pointed to Obama’s Kansas City speech last week as an example of how the president will walk that line. “He’s going to draw the contrast sharply,” the official said. “He’s done that. He’s also going to use humor to draw that contrast.”

Some of the most endangered Democrats won’t want Obama near them on the campaign trail, but he will be a presence regardless. His tools are limited but not insubstantial. He needs to motivate the Democratic base while remaining presidential. He must be partisan while trying to deal with cascading events abroad.

“He can’t afford to let Republicans frame the debate,” said one Democrat deeply involved in the fall elections. “That requires pushing back pretty hard. But people don’t want their president to be a partisan warrior — or at least a petty partisan warrior. He’s being required to walk a very, very fine line.”

dan.balz@washpost.com

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