Presidential confidant David Axelrod last week suggested that many Democratic candidates running this year will want to distance themselves from President Obama, and there are indications that the president himself understands that he may not be in great demand by Democratic candidates in tight races.
Leading Democrats seem to be hoping that the president will stay home and send old, reliable Bill Clinton in his stead. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi set the stage for all this by suggesting after a recent White House meeting that while they all love the president, candidates will understand if his hectic schedule prevents him from hitting the campaign trail as much as he might like.
Politically, things can get a bit dicey for any second-term president as the midterm elections approach, but this year, Democrats seem to be facing an almost perfect storm with their president at its center. Mr. Obama’s approval ratings continue dropping like a rock, and millions of Americans who have always found him likeable and probably voted for him are beginning to conclude that he is neither competent nor trustworthy.
The rumor is that Democratic strategists are, as a result, convinced that retaking the House is a fantasy they cannot afford to indulge and are turning their attention to holding the Senate.
If the elections were held today, the GOP would have a better than even chance of taking six Senate seats and the Senate itself. Democratic incumbents in Arkansas, Alaska, North Carolina and Louisiana are in real trouble, and the Montana seat vacated by Democrat Max Baucus is a likely loss.
Surprisingly, even the Republican candidate for the Senate in Michigan is ahead, and New Hampshire and Colorado are far closer than anyone would have predicted a few months ago..
Democrats can take heart from the fact that the election won’t take place today. They’ve got until November to get their act together and hope untested Republican candidates will blow a race or two, or to pray that some unexpected event will redound to their benefit.
Ten months is more than a lifetime in politics, but right now, things look pretty bleak, and Democrats could be facing a “wave” election that will cost them more seats than the most optimistic GOP strategists are now predicting.
Yogi Berra would look at what’s going on and suggest that it seems like deja vu all over again. In 2005, President George W. Bush’s poll numbers were, as the pros like to say, “in the toilet.”
Voters weren’t all that enthused with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many who found the Texan’s swagger endearing a few years earlier were growing tired of their president. A steady drumbeat of Democratic charges that he was lying had eroded Mr. Bush’s credibility, and his administration’s performance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina left millions of voters questioning both his judgment and competence.
Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman had been arguing since Mr. Bush’s 2004 re-election that 2006 should not be about Mr. Bush. The White House seemed to agree, and as plans for the fall elections unfolded, it was assumed that the president’s “hectic schedule” would prevent him from campaigning for as many GOP candidates as he might like.
Then as the elections approached, the president traveled to Florida and then-Republican Charlie Crist running for governor let it be known that he wouldn’t attend the event and really didn’t want Mr. Bush roaming around Florida.
It was big news and in response, Mr. Bush’s political operatives led by Karl Rove let it be known that Mr. Bush would campaign and be welcomed by candidates everywhere, and the president planned to hit the campaign trail.
When candidates and their managers suggested that a presidential visit in the closing days of their campaigns might not be all that wise, they were browbeaten by White House operatives into embracing their president.
Under such pressure, they had little choice, because an open snub risked alienating base voters and could be just as damaging as campaigning beside him. A number of candidates’ tracking polls suggested that Mr. Mehlman was right — a presidential visit cost Republican candidates four to six points and may have made the difference in a number of close races.
Few Republican candidates won that year. Bob Corker of Tennessee was in a close race when his managers got the dreaded call from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue informing them that the president wanted to come to Tennessee to help.
When the Corker team pleaded with them to stay away from Tennessee, they were told he was coming whether they liked the idea or not, and that Mr. Corker should welcome him with open arms.
The candidate’s managers said that if Mr. Bush came to Tennessee, Mr. Corker would leave the state until Air Force One left. After a tense confrontation, the White House backed down, Mr. Bush skipped Tennessee and Mr. Corker won.
Mr. Bush’s people then — like Mr. Obama’s today — recognized the danger of making the races “all about the president.” Ego triumphed, though. Presidents and their operatives want things their way and ultimately come to think that the White House way is always the smartest path.
They also managed to convince themselves that unless the president campaigned actively, his absence from the campaign trail would be an admission of weakness that would make it harder to govern for the rest of his term. Their reaction was an almost inevitable result of the publicity surrounding Mr. Crist’s very public snub.
If anything, Mr. Obama is far more thin-skinned that George W. Bush, and his operatives are as arrogant and self-centered as any who have preceded them.
The only remaining question is, who will be this cycle’s Charlie Crist.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.