By Anne E. Kornblut and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
An administration that came to Washington promising to rise above politics has quickly immersed itself in trying to influence an array of state-level elections, with an eye to both the fate of President Obama's agenda and his prospects for winning a second term in 2012.
While White House officials shrug off suggestions that they are any more involved in trying to improve the prospects for their party than were their predecessors -- and argue that there is no single figure playing the kind of politics-first role that Karl Rove occupied in George W. Bush's administration -- the president and his aides are becoming increasingly active in the political arena.
Earlier this month, Obama reached out to former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder (D) to ask him to endorse the state's Democratic gubernatorial candidate, R. Creigh Deeds, after Wilder publicly praised the Republican nominee, Robert F. McDonnell.
"I'll just say he called and made his position known," Wilder said in an interview Monday.
Deputy White House Chief of Staff Jim Messina, meanwhile, has been bird-dogging the Massachusetts legislature, trying to persuade lawmakers to pass a bill allowing the Democratic governor to pick an interim successor to the late senator Edward M. Kennedy, a move that could be vital to the prospects of Obama's health-care overhaul in Congress.
In Colorado, Obama picked sides in the Democratic Senate primary last week, endorsing Sen. Michael Bennet as he faces a primary challenge from former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff. Obama had already endorsed party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) despite a primary challenge from a Democratic congressman.
On Monday, Obama was greeted at an airport in New York by Democratic Gov. David A. Paterson, whom White House officials had urged only days earlier to consider quitting his faltering 2010 campaign.
"The focus of the president and his White House is the big challenges facing the country at home and abroad," said deputy communications director Dan Pfeiffer. "Unlike in the past, electoral politics is the not the driving force in the White House, it is just one of the many ways to ensure the president's agenda for change is enacted. It's the substance that decides the politics, not the other way around."
While there is nothing unusual about a sitting president and top members of his staff becoming involved in state-level elections, Obama and his advisers have unapologetically embraced politics since the president took office. At the same time, they have taken some real risks, both by getting involved in Democratic primaries and, in the case of New York, doing so even when it will not directly affect the balance of power in Washington.
"As an outsider, it seems undisciplined," said Sara Taylor, who served as director of political affairs in the Bush administration. "If it's not a state critical to your boss's election, and nor can you add a legislative vote, why would you be expending capital?"
White House officials said their aim is to strengthen the Democratic Party at both the state and federal levels, something Obama's allies are eager to see. In New York, officials are concerned about Paterson, whose approval ratings are anemic in recent polls, topping the Democratic ticket next year when several Democratic House members could be vulnerable and a Senate seat is in play.
There is no single Rove figure in the Obama White House. While Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is perceived as the political mastermind, he has handed off most of the day-to-day duties to Messina, who holds a daily conference call with the Democratic National Committee to discuss developments in local races and frequently consults with the candidates themselves. White House political director Patrick Gaspard and Sean Sweeney, senior adviser to Emanuel, are the other key players, officials said.
In the Virginia race, the twin aims are clear: Obama hopes to give a boost to Deeds, who according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll is slightly behind his Republican opponent in the Nov. 3 election, and make sure an ally is in the swing state's governor's mansion in 2012.
Wilder, who in 1990 became the nation's first elected black governor, is notoriously stingy with endorsements for fellow Virginia Democrats. He has caused Deeds headaches for weeks, both with his positive remarks about McDonnell and with his criticism of Deeds as not being more aggressive about defining himself with voters.
Wilder declined to endorse either man when Deeds and McDonnell ran against each other for attorney general in 2005, largely because Deeds has always opposed a signature achievement of Wilder's tenure -- a law restricting Virginians to one handgun purchase a month.
In July, Gaspard made a two-hour visit to Wilder in Richmond that did not lead to an endorsement. But it is possible that Obama's call will make a difference. On Monday, Wilder agreed to a meeting with Deeds, and he said he would have a statement about his endorsement later this week.
Of the call from Obama, Wilder said: "He's a Democrat. Mr. Deeds is a Democrat, and, obviously, the president would like to see a Democratic victory."
Obama has already visited Virginia once on Deeds's behalf, headlining an August campaign rally in Tysons Corner and a high-dollar fundraiser the same day. He is featured in a radio ad airing on black radio stations in the state.
But Deeds appeared to distance himself from the president last week as polls showed Obama slipping in a state that supported a Democrat for president in 2008 for the first time in 40 years. Asked at a debate whether he would consider himself an "Obama Democrat," Deeds paused before eventually offering: "I'm a Creigh Deeds Democrat."
Despite the hedge, Deeds aides insist they think Obama can only help their campaign, by energizing liberal Democrats and black voters, two groups with whom the rural senator has lagged behind other Virginia Democrats.
White House officials certainly believe that is the case. Top Obama officials have been in touch with Deeds to discuss strategy, advisers to both said, and the campaign is in touch with either the administration or the DNC every day. Contacts directly with the White House, particularly over scheduling, have increased with frequency in recent days, as conversations continue about additional Obama campaign stops for Deeds between now and Election Day.
In the New York race, Gaspard flew to meet Paterson earlier this month to urge him to consider his poor standing in the polls, making no secret of the fact that the White House would like the governor to step aside, administration officials said. Paterson seemed open to the idea at the time, the officials said, but has since publicly declared that he plans to stay in the race.
A senior Democratic Party official close to Paterson said that while the White House pressure on Paterson amounted to a serious blow, the governor is likely to continue weighing his options until he can determine whether he still has support among Harlem's black political elite. Paterson was a longtime state senator representing Harlem.
The Democratic official, who speaks regularly with Paterson, said he thought the story about the White House effort to nudge the governor out was deliberately leaked to increase pressure on him to stand aside in favor of attorney general Andrew M. Cuomo. But he said Paterson is not likely to bow out -- and Cuomo will not risk a racially delicate challenge to Paterson -- unless the top black Democrats in the city ask Paterson to make way for Cuomo.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, a previously staunch supporter of Paterson's, sounded less enthusiastic on Monday.
On Twitter, Sharpton wrote: "I have been on the phone the last 24 hours talking with White House, NY Governor Paterson, and other leaders around whether he should run." A few minutes later, Sharpton tweeted: "I hope that leaders put the agenda of the people ahead of personal agendas. We cannot let reactionary forces win back seats of power."
By "reactionary forces," Sharpton was apparently referring to former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, with whom Sharpton clashed repeatedly during the Republican's eight years in office. Polls have shown Giuliani leading Paterson in a head-to-head contest. Sharpton has recently been warning that a Democratic primary for governor would be divisive and could help Giuliani.
Although White House officials did not back away from their conviction that it would be better for Paterson to drop out of the race, the tone was muted somewhat on Monday as Obama arrived in the state for several days of events surrounding the U.N. General Assembly. In a closely watched encounter, Paterson appeared at the airport when Obama landed, waiting at the bottom of the stairs to greet the president as he walked out of Air Force One. The two had a brief, and apparently cordial, exchange.
Staff writers Keith B. Richburg in New York and Michael D. Shear, traveling with Obama, contributed to this report.