By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2010; A02
Fight or flight?
That is the question Democratic incumbents and challengers in this fall's elections are asking themselves when it comes to dealing with President Obama. Is the best course to distance oneself from a president whose job-approval rating has sunk below 50 percent and whose appeal to independents has gone missing? Or to embrace him and his policies -- the majority of which remain quite popular with the Democratic base that will be essential to any victories that the party claims this fall?
Powerful forces are lining up on both sides of that strategic divide.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine made clear in an interview with "Fox & Friends" last week that he thinks candidates distancing themselves from the president -- and from high-profile congressional leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- are making the wrong move. "I can tell you Democrats who kind of are afraid to be who they are, or pushing back on their leaders, I think they're crazy," Kaine said.
And yet, in campaigns across the country, many Democrats are doing just that.
In Indiana, Rep. Joe Donnelly is running a television ad in which he details his generally conservative stance on immigration while images of Obama and Pelosi are shown on screen. "That may not be what the Washington crowd wants, but I don't work for them," Donnelly says in the ad. "I work for you."
Rep. Travis Childers, who represents a district in northern Mississippi where Obama won just 38 percent of the vote in 2008, takes a similar approach in his TV advertising -- promoting the fact that he has "voted against every big budget" since winning a special election two years ago.
Even some Democratic candidates who are being heavily touted by the White House appear determined to keep the president at arm's length. Shortly after Obama played a lead role in helping Sen. Michael Bennet defeat former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff in a Democratic primary fight last Tuesday, Bennet was asked whether he would want the president to campaign with him this fall. "We'll have to see," Bennet told ABC's George Stephanopoulos -- a response well short of a ringing endorsement of Obama's political standing.
One senior Democratic consultant suggested that the distance candidates are seeking to put between themselves and Obama is reflective of the ascendance of economic issues in voters' minds. "Barack Obama's economic policy of spending our way out of recession is seen as a failure at best and harmful at worst," the source said. "That should tell candidates in competitive jurisdictions all they need to know about running with the president."
Polling on the issue is slightly less stark. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey, 51 percent said it was more important to have Republicans in charge of Congress "to act as a check on Obama" while 43 percent said they would rather have Democrats in charge to "help support Obama's policies."
Although it appears as though most candidates won't be following Kaine's advice in the final three months of the midterm campaign, it's far less clear whether any Democrat -- particularly those who have spent the past two years in Congress -- can succeed in gaining separation from the president.
"Even if it made strategic sense, it is hard for Democratic incumbents with a voting record to literally distance themselves from the president," said Democratic pollster Fred Yang.
Obama himself has long argued behind closed doors that Democratic incumbents are stuck with him in good times and in bad; that is, voters simply will not differentiate between the Democratic president and their Democratic member of Congress in the vast majority of districts across the country.
By embracing the president and his policies, the argument goes, the Democratic base will be fired up. And, in midterm elections, base intensity isn't everything -- it's the only thing.
But Tom Davis, a former congressman from Virginia and one of the Republican Party's leading strategists, noted that although Democrats need the "Obama turnout model in urban and minority areas," the president is "radioactive" in the "South, border and mountain states." That push and pull creates a "dilemma" for Democrats on the ballot this fall, Davis said.
Martin Frost, a longtime Texas Democratic congressman who, like Davis, spent much of his time in Washington focused on campaigns, said that while "candidates in the South and Midwest will need to put some distance between themselves and Obama," the president can still help his party avoid disaster this fall.
"Obama's best contribution to the campaign will be to raise money for the party committees, as he did in Texas" recently, Frost said. "He can raise big money even in red states, and he shouldn't be offended when Democrats like Bill White and Chet Edwards don't show up for a photo," he said, referring to the party's candidate for Texas governor and a congressman from the state, respectively.