Will President Obama's midterm campaign push help the Democrats?

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

With President Obama hitting the campaign trail in Wisconsin and Ohio, The Post asked experts if his midterm push will work. Below are responses from Larry J. Sabato, Mary Beth Cahill, Douglas E. Schoen, Ed Rogers, Linda Chavez and Dana Perino.

LARRY J. SABATO

Director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics

Presidents like to believe that their work can tame the seas. But when fierce political winds build a towering wave, even a presidential-size yacht can be capsized.

President Obama can raise money, draw crowds and TV cameras, and create headlines for his favored candidates. Here and there, smart moves by the White House might pull an endangered Democratic candidate to victory. Overall, though, the combination of persistent high unemployment, little income growth, a natural midterm snapback, intense enthusiasm among Republicans in a low-turnout election and big Democratic vulnerability after massive gains in 2006 and 2008 makes most presidential visits and pronouncements mere background noise.

We're headed for a major pendulum swing. Since World War II, the party of the president has lost an average 24 House seats and three to four Senate seats in midterm elections. Count on a doubling of those numbers in 2010. The most significant Democratic disasters will likely come at the state level. On the eve of redistricting, Republicans will gain perhaps eight governorships, 400 to 500 state legislators and eight to 14 new state legislative chambers.

It's a "check-and-balance" moment. Obama will have to adapt to divided government -- something Americans have ordered up for 36 of the past 60 years. The good news for Obama is that presidents often fight what is in their best political interests. Assuming decent economic growth before 2012, a rambunctious Republican Congress will give the president an institutional devil figure to blame and run against for reelection. The pendulum swings both ways, increasingly quickly.

MARY BETH CAHILL

Manager of Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign; former chief of staff to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy

When Barack Obama turns his single-minded attention to a goal, whether it be health care, financial reform or shoring up the banks, he achieves it.

Americans know that President Obama is not responsible for the economic situation we face, but for Democrats to win, he has to continue setting an overarching message of concern for the everyday lives of Americans: help them see that the improvements in their lives that he promised are happening now and that he needs Democratic members of Congress to achieve the future he remains committed to.

Beyond relaying that message, Obama will have to make judicious decisions on where and how he can be most helpful. The president is in the best position to do what Democrats need most: raise money to combat the waterfall of funds coming from Republican donors and large corporations hoping for a return to the Bush years.

This is going to be a tough year for Democrats, but it is foolish to forecast the outcome of the election now. The Republican Party is in disarray, and handpicked candidates are tumbling to defeat in primaries. The jobless and trade numbers have begun to move back, and continued strength will make a better climate for Democrats as likely voters make their decisions. There are debates, advertisements and news stories yet to come that will help voters see the candidates in clear relief.

If he assists in raising funds and setting a message, the president will help all of these factors play to Democrats' favor.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

President Obama's increasingly harsh campaign to revive the sagging fortunes of the Democratic Party is almost certainly going to fail. Instead of attempting to further divide an already polarized America with attacks against the Republicans for both creating the economic problems we now face and failing to propose constructive solutions to them, the president should do what Bill Clinton did in 1995 when he succeeded in winning support from Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress for a balanced budget.

That is, Obama should invite Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader John Boehner to the White House and propose a grand bargain to them: extending all the Bush tax cuts for two years as former budget director Peter Orszag has suggested, as well as supporting the research and development tax credit and the tax credit for capital expenditures. In return for supporting these proposals, which enjoy broad support on the Republican side of the aisle, the president can then also insist on some modest level of infrastructure spending.

The Republican leaders will have to attend, and they will almost certainly say no to the bargain. And if they oppose broad-based, bipartisan policies to stimulate the economy, the president will have a real-world, contemporaneous example of why swing voters should return to the Democratic Party. The Republicans will have proved to be the party of "no," even when their own proposals dominate the discussion.

Obama will appear to be the centrist, unifying figure he promised to be in his campaign. And if by some chance the Republicans go along, the president and the Democrats will have a victory in the run-up to the November election that will almost certainly command wide support in an electorate that is desperate for solutions to our growing economic problems.

ED ROGERS

White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

The president could be useful to a few Democrats, but overall he's a problem for his party in November. A president's impact on a midterm election at the 11th hour is limited. In 1986, I worked in the White House political office for a then-popular President Reagan. He campaigned hard for GOP Senate candidates in the last few weeks, and we still lost control of the Senate.

Obama is much less popular than Reagan was, so his upside for Democrats is much smaller. He also has two particular problems: style and substance. Stylistically, Obama is not a good come-from-behind performer. His cerebral presentation is chilling, and his efforts to look folksy by rolling up his sleeves and dropping his g's look contrived. Substantively, the terrible results he has produced for the economy and the unpopularity of the rest of his legislative agenda are anchors that weigh him down.

Obama's sub-50 percent job approval rating means he is a big part of the Democrats' problem. The president should have invested more time earlier this year raising money for priority campaigns. Now it is too late, and most Democratic candidates in competitive races probably don't want even a lucrative visit from the president.

And there are risks involved with so much exposure. There are very few races Obama could really help. But a gaffe, a new leftist revelation or a surprise that no one could have even imagined could make a bad election a historical disaster for the Democrats.

LINDA CHAVEZ

Chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity; former member of the Reagan administration

The best thing President Obama could do to help struggling Democrats in November is stay home.

His decision to go to Cleveland earlier this week to attack House Minority Leader John Boehner in his own backyard only served to diminish himself. He should leave the attack-dog duties to others.

But the president's biggest problem is that Americans have lost confidence in his policies. He has tried to spend his way to economic recovery, and it hasn't worked. After a nearly $1 trillion economic stimulus failed to keep the unemployment rate below 9 percent, his only new ideas are to spend additional billions on infrastructure and offer targeted tax breaks for business.

The proposals reflect the president's lack of business acumen. Allowing businesses to take an accelerated write-down for capital outlays in 2011 won't spur job creation. Only a permanent reduction in corporate tax rates would encourage businesses to expand -- at 39 percent, the United States has one of the highest rates in the industrialized world. Instead, the president wants to raise tax rates for individuals and small businesses that earn more than $250,000 a year.

Ideas like these jeopardize American jobs -- including those of Democrats up for re-election.

DANA PERINO

White House press secretary to President George W. Bush

Whether President Obama's midterm push will work depends on your definition of success. Is it that the Democrats hold the House? Lose the House and keep the Senate? Lose the House and the Senate but shed the conservative Democrats who have been a thorn in the party's side? If it's either of the first two, it won't do much to change the outcome. The discomfort with the president's policies can't be spun away. After his speeches this week, he may as well have been a tree falling in the forest -- the lack of support from even his own party was deafening.

Regardless of who holds majorities after the election, the margins of power will narrow. Many centrist Democrats who voted for the stimulus and then more reluctantly for health-care and cap-and-trade legislation will lose -- and, in some ways, party purists on the left want that. And because Obama's midterm rhetoric has demonized everything Republicans do or say, questioned their motives and ignored their ideas, the White House will also find it hard to persuade members to work together to get things done. Then again, maybe they would welcome that -- get nothing done for the next two years and blame it on Republicans.


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