With his new emphasis on creating government policy through executive fiat, President Obama is betting he will fire up his Democratic base more than he will infuriate Republican voters in this year's midterm elections.
Democrats increasingly are abandoning their dream of winning back the House in November. Even Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said last week that she can't "confidently predict" it. But the president needs Democrats to hold on to the Senate, where a swing of six seats would give Republicans control, to have any hope of achieving more of his policy goals and reshaping the judiciary during his final two years in office.
The presidential party historically loses congressional seats in the midterms, and Mr. Obama's chances of defying that trend don't look good. The troubled launch last year of Obamacare has Democrats on the defensive and Republicans re-energized.
"There's a 30-point difference in terms of key Republican constituencies and key Democratic constituencies in their intensity of desire to vote," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. "The Republicans are fired up and ready to go."
Obama losing the young
Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway said surveys show that Mr. Obama is in trouble with his previously reliable bloc of young voters.
"There's great indication now that the disappointment and disillusionment with Obamacare is spilling over into the view of government generally among youth," Ms. Conway said. "If one of their major goals was to get youth to think about the government in a more benevolent, generous, accepting terms, they're failing."
White House aides say Mr. Obama wants to forge "a year of action" after his agenda came to a halt in Congress last year. In his State of the Union address last week, the president said he would use his executive authority "whenever and wherever I can" to move forward with initiatives such as raising the minimum wage for federal contractors and establishing a system of government-backed, interest-bearing retirement accounts available to all American workers.
Democrats also believe the president's move will re-energize the party's base at the polls in November.
"I think the executive action is an absolute plus in terms of energizing Democrats," said Ms. Lake. "The minimum wage is a great issue to energize Democrats. Democrats have been just sick and tired of doing nothing and thinking that nothing's going to happen. Democrats want government to do things, and they want their president to do things."
While turnout affects House races more often than Senate contests, strategists say, turnout could make the difference in a handful of Senate races including in Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina and Alaska.
Could strategy backfire?
Republicans say presidential action without Congress could backfire and motivate GOP voters.
"I think what it does is fire up Republicans to turn out to make sure they put in a Senate majority that can stop Obama," said Republican pollster Jon McHenry, vice president of North Star Opinion Research in Alexandria, Va. "You're going to see Republicans all up in arms that Obama's going against the Constitution and trying to be a king and a dictator. It helps ramp up Republican turnout that was already probably going to be pretty good."
Congressional Republicans are trying to rein in Mr. Obama's executive power with lawsuits and legislation. Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, has accused Mr. Obama of running an "imperial presidency." Rep. Tom Rice, South Carolina Republican, has proposed more aggressive legal action with a resolution called the STOP Act — for Stop This Overreaching Presidency.
The president, in an interview Friday, said he is not worried about the Republicans' effort.
"I don't think that's very serious," Mr. Obama told CNN's Jake Tapper. "It's a tough argument for the other side to make that not only are they willing [to] not do anything, but they also want me not to do anything."
Ms. Conway, president of the inc./Woman Trend polling company, said the president is continuing to provoke conservative voters.
"It's much easier to enrage and engage voters from the party out of power if you insist on running an imperial presidency," Ms. Conway said. "You've pledged publicly in your State of the Union to ignore Congress, and therefore the Constitution, if you get the chance."
The president's aides point out that he has issued executive orders less than nearly all of his modern predecessors. Mr. Obama issued 147 executive orders in his first term, fewer than George W. Bush (173), Bill Clinton (200) and Ronald Reagan (213) in their first terms.
Ms. Lake said she doubts Mr. Obama's actions will have the unintended consequence of motivating Republican voters.
"It has no downside, because I can't imagine Republicans more fired up over anything than they already are over Obamacare," she said. "They have worked themselves into a frenzy over that."
'Write a big fat check'
While the president has been vowing to work without Congress whenever possible, first lady Michelle Obama was telling wealthy donors to give heavily to Democratic candidates because the president cannot move on his agenda without Congress.
At a fundraiser in a tony Los Angeles neighborhood, Mrs. Obama told about 200 supporters that her husband needs Democrats to pick up seats in Congress this year to move forward on issues such as fair wages and college affordability.
"Let's be clear: Barack cannot do this alone sitting by himself in the Oval Office," Mrs. Obama said. "It's simply not enough to elect Barack Obama president if we don't also elect leaders in Congress and in our statehouses who will work with him to keep making the change we all believe in."
The Los Angeles fundraiser was hosted Wednesday by television producer Phil Rosenthal, creator of "Everybody Loves Raymond," and his wife, actress Monica Horan.
Among the champagne-sipping guests at their home in the gated Hancock Park community were Barbra Streisand, actor James Brolin and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Ticket prices ranged from $1,000 to $32,400.
Mrs. Obama told donors that it is crucial for Democrats to win back control of the House and to hold on to the Senate in the midterm elections.
"What I want all of you to think about for just a minute is what could happen if we lose those six [Senate] seats," she said, adding that it could mean the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, interference with a woman's ability to obtain contraception, the banning of same-sex marriage, and the cutting-off of unemployment insurance.
"So make no mistake about it, it matters who is elected to represent us in Washington. It matters," Mrs. Obama said. "If we are truly serious about continuing to move this country forward, then we can't just sit back and hope for the best and then be surprised and outraged when things don't work out."
The first lady implored the guests to "write a big, fat check" to the Democratic Party.
"Write the biggest check you can possibly write," Mrs. Obama said. "Writing the checks is the single most impactful thing you can do right now to affect the outcome of those midterms. We need you to max out today."
She echoed the concerns of Democratic strategists who say Republican voters are more motivated this year.
"We need to be as passionate and as hungry as we were in 2008 and 2012. In fact, we need to be even more passionate and more hungry, because these races will be even harder and even closer than those presidential elections," she said. "It is not enough to simply stake out the moral high ground, feel good about ourselves and wait for things to turn out OK. We need to act."
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