- The Washington Times - Friday, January 29, 2010

Barack Obama built a powerful campaign organization and got himself to the White House. Now, as head of the Democratic Party, he’s expected to get other Democrats into office, too. But, judging by his one-year track record, he’s not getting it done.

The list of White House failures is growing: It hasn’t galvanized the legions of 2008 Obama backers in three major statewide losses. It hasn’t prevented primary challenges for at least two vulnerable Senate Democrats even though Mr. Obama endorsed them. And it hasn’t recruited strong candidates for Senate seats once held by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the president himself.

“I get the sense that it’s all about them … and that if they do get involved, it should be magic. But, in my experience, it hasn’t been,” said Democratic Rep. Marion Berry of Arkansas.

Based on roughly two dozen interviews with lawmakers, party leaders and political operatives nationwide, it’s clear that many Democrats feel Mr. Obama hasn’t fully embraced his role as party chief. It has them questioning the strength of his political muscle and faulting his advisers for paying too little attention to the fast-approaching 2010 midterm contests.

Some of these Democrats complained on the record. Others asked for anonymity to avoid angering Mr. Obama and his team. Altogether, they described an ineffective political operation. They suggested Mr. Obama’s team is overly focused on his likely 2012 re-election bid. And they blamed the White House for a muddled message about what he’s trying and accomplishing as president.

“The political operation is good, but it needs to be better,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell. He faulted the White House for trouble communicating its accomplishments and said “the biggest chink in the armor” was Mr. Obama’s inability to turn out his 2008 backers. Added Mr. Rendell: “The president has been reluctant to sort of roll up his sleeves and fight for the things we believe in because he’s been trying hard for bipartisan results.”

“Anytime a president’s party loses, the president, because he is the head of the party, has to take some blame and responsibility,” said Don Fowler of South Carolina, a former Democratic National Committee chairman.

On the subject of Mr. Obama’s message, he said: “The multiple focuses they are taking are not doing their political operation any good.” On mechanics, he called Mr. Obama’s decision to keep his political arm, Organizing for America, separate from the Democratic Party “a major mistake” because it divides resources, focus and control.

“Massachusetts was a catastrophe,” Mr. Fowler said. “The White House has to bear some blame for that.”

Republican Scott Brown’s victory over Democrat Martha Coakley in the special election to fill the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat in the Democratic bastion prompted top Democrats in Congress to call on Mr. Obama to more forcefully make the party’s case against Republicans.

“There’s no doubt that the White House, which has a big megaphone, needs to make sure that the contrasts are very clear to the public,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign committee, said the day after that election. His message was echoed by Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the head of the Senate Democrats’ election effort.

Mr. Berry, a moderate Democrat who announced his retirement this week, said Mr. Obama’s policies are hampering Democrats. “There’s certainly not anybody in my district saying ‘I’d just wish you’d stay with President Obama more. I really think he knows what he’s doing,’ ” Mr. Berry said.

Democratic Rep. John F. Tierney of Massachusetts said Mr. Obama hasn’t done enough to remind people that George W. Bush’s administration engineered the Wall Street bailouts, the source of so much voter anger. “The more he explains things, it makes it look like he did it,” Mr. Tierney said, though Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats supported the rescue effort.

Mr. Obama himself has owned up to a failure to communicate, telling ABC News: “We lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values.” But he didn’t lay out any new road maps in his State of the Union speech Wednesday night.

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