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Democrats engage in 'circular firing squad'
But more help is coming, thanks to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). In the conversations between House leaders and White House officials, she managed to leverage the Gibbs episode into a commitment from the president's team for additional high-level help for her troops this fall.
Van Hollen offered this defense of the White House: "I know for a fact that the president and the White House [team] are absolutely committed to maintaining a Democratic majority in the House," he said. "They know that the future success of the president's agenda depends on a Democratic majority in the House, and they also know that the day after the election, the elections will be interpreted as a referendum on the president's policies -- whether they like it or not."
The Democrats have gained 55 seats in the past two election cycles (including recent special elections). One senior White House official calculates that about 30 of those are in districts whose makeup is conservative enough that they do not really belong in the Democrats' column.
A House Democrat made a similar point by noting that Democrats hold 80 seats in districts won by George W. Bush in 2004 and 49 in districts won by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008. Both highlight the amount of GOP-leaning territory Democrats must defend. "That tells us that we have almost every swing district right now, which means you're in borrowed territory," the House Democrat said.
White House and House officials see a path for holding the House, unless the wave of reaction against the president's policies and unrest over the economy swamps even the smartest and best prepared of embattled incumbents -- which is what happened in 1994.
For Democrats, the strategy for survival requires changing public perceptions about the economy, working on the margins to save some vulnerable incumbents and picking off a few Republican-held seats as a buffer against anticipated losses.
Emanuel said he thinks Democrats were making progress earlier in the spring until they were hit by what he calls "the G force" -- the oil spill in the gulf, the debt crisis in Greece and the controversy over Israel's attack on a ship carrying aid to Gaza. "We hit this wall," Emanuel said.
The White House also suffered a setback when the last jobs report showed tepid employment growth and from a string of days in which the stock market tumbled. The president's approval rating on the economy, measured by the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, dropped seven points in a month.
The president's challenge will be to convince voters that conditions truly are improving, to boost confidence in the future and in his leadership. He also will have the principal responsibility of making the case against the Republicans. But the president's advisers are also correct when they say much will depend on how effective individual Democrats are in making the case against their opponents.
For Democrats, saving the House will require a team effort, which is why officials look at the past week in discouragement. Few teams win when they are fighting among themselves.