For months, the White House has insisted that President Obama would do all he could to help his party in the midterm election. Now that he’s started, some Democrats wonder whether he could help a little bit less.
In a rocky return to the campaign trail, Obama has served up campaign fodder for Republican opponents in a formal speech and in an off-the-cuff interview. He’s been heckled by immigration activists angry about his decision to delay executive action on deportation. On Sunday, he watched a chunk of his audience head for the exits — apparently to avoid traffic — before the end of his stump speech.
The slip-ups have even extended to the usually disciplined first lady, who campaigned in Iowa for Senate candidate Bruce Braley but repeatedly called the congressman by the wrong last name. After she went back Tuesday for a do-over, a White House news release got Braley’s name right but his title wrong.
Democrats have witnessed the performances, cringed and complained, offering a preview of the finger-pointing that might come if the party fares poorly in the Nov. 4 election.
“It doesn’t open up a new line of attack, but it freshens one right as voters are tuning in,” said a campaign advisor, one of several Democrats who would not be quoted by name while discussing the president’s effect on elections.
The focus of much of their frustration has been Obama’s off-message comments, which undermined a key strategy for many Democratic candidates — to distance themselves from the unpopular president.
Several Democratic strategists and campaign advisors noted Obama’s blunders were minor problems compared with the drag his sunken approval rating is putting on their candidates.
Still, they saw in the missteps a window into a president’s mind-set and his political operation. They blamed a White House political team disconnected from the tough realities of campaigning and a president better at selling himself than his party.
One party strategist said Obama had long seemed preoccupied with how he would be judged by history. The strategist pointed to Obama’s line in a speech last month when he noted he was not up for election but listed his top priorities and said: “These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them.”
“That’s a legacy statement. He’s a guy already in full legacy mode,” the strategist said.
Obama’s ability to think long-term can be useful, he said, but “30 days before an election, it’d be nice if he gave a damn what’s going to happen in Colorado.”
The president’s sound bite quickly became a Republican attack ad. Even weeks later, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz would not agree with the premise that a vote for a Democrat was a vote for Obama’s policies.
“Barack Obama was on the ballot in 2012 and 2008,” she said Wednesday on MSNBC. “The candidates that are on the ballot are Democratic and Republican candidates for Congress.”
White House officials argue that Obama is doing all he can to help struggling Democrats. He’s raised millions for campaign committees, delayed controversial elements of his policy agenda and tailored his message to cater to their political needs, they say.
“The president has spent a lot of time over the past couple of years trying to boost the candidacy of Democratic candidates, both incumbents and challengers, all across the country,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Privately, the president’s advisors are frustrated by the media’s rush to see a gaffe where the White House sees smart politics. If Obama isn’t sticking to his allies’ message, it’s because it’s a losing message, they argue.
Midterm elections are about turning out the Democratic base — young people, African Americans, women. Those voters have proved they will go to the polls for Obama, but not necessarily for little-known Senate hopefuls or incumbents so determined to distance themselves from the president they won’t acknowledge voting for him, said one Democrat close to the president.
“They’ll turn out because they think it’s about him,” the Democrat said. “He has to talk about himself. They vote to protect him.”
That was the thinking that led to what some Democrats saw as the second and more damaging of Obama’s recent remarks that drew attention. In a radio interview with the Rev. Al Sharpton on Monday — an appearance targeted at black voters — Obama brushed off Democratic candidates’ attempts to shy away from his policies. He’s told them to “do what you need to do to win,” he said.
“The bottom line is, though, these are all folks who vote with me; they have supported my agenda in Congress,” he said.
For Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has tried to tie his Democratic opponent to Obama, the sound bite was an unexpected treat.
“He’s gift-wrapped a brutal truth that every Democrat in the country has been breaking their backs to conceal,” said McConnell campaign advisor Josh Holmes.
To some degree, Democrats’ complaints stem from a dispute that is less about the message and more about how broadly to telegraph it. The Democratic National Committee has been using loyalty to the president as a lever with African American voters. In nine states with tight races, the committee is running an ad in African American newspapers with a large photo of Obama next to the words “GET HIS BACK.”
Of course, when his every public utterance is analyzed, Obama doesn’t fly under the radar.
“It’s very difficult for a president to micro-target to a specific audience. But it’s not difficult for a president to energize the base, and I would encourage him to do that as broadly as he can,” said Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist. “At the end of the day, Democrats are Democrats. Hiding is probably not as effective as fighting.”
Others in the party offered different advice. The best thing the president could do to help his allies is to demonstrate leadership and competence in Washington, said the Democrat advising campaigns. Obama’s approval rating in tight districts has slumped as concerns about Ebola and other world crises grow, the advisor said.
“It is his approval rating that is actually the real problem here,” the Democrat said. “That other stuff, that just isn’t helpful.”
Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.