President Obama may have hit the low point of his presidency Thursday — at least to date — when his spokesman declared that Mr. Obama is still relevant.
“I think the vast majority of Americans would agree that, whoever the sitting president of the United States happens to be, is relevant in a lot of important ways,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
Mr. Earnest was responding to a comment by Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat, who is running for reelection and trying his very best to distance himself from the president.
“The president’s not relevant,” Mr. Begich told the Washington Examiner. “He’s gone in two years. Whoever’s the next U.S. senator [from Alaska] will be dealing with a new president. That’s the bottom line.”
Said Mr. Earnest, “Senator Begich is certainly entitled to his opinion.”
The senator’s comment was reminiscent of President Clinton, whose feuding with Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995 prompted Mr. Clinton to defend himself in a similar way.
“I am relevant,” Mr. Clinton said. “The Constitution gives me relevance. A president, especially an activist president has relevance.”
The sparring highlighted Mr. Obama’s unpopularity with members of his own party with less than two weeks before the crucial midterm elections that could decide control of the Senate. Republicans need to pick up six seats to gain the majority, and Democratic candidates are shunning the president on the campaign trail across the country.
The rift between Mr. Obama and his party has been on open display in recent days. In an interview Thursday with NBC, Sen. Kay Hagan, North Carolina Democrat, refused three times to say that Mr. Obama is a strong leader.
“President Obama has a lot on his plate,” Mrs. Hagan began, citing the Gulf oil spill, the Ebola crisis and the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group.
Asked again if she thought Mr. Obama is a strong leader, Mrs. Hagan, who is locked in a tight re-election battle, replied, “With Ebola, we’ve definitely been late to the table making decisions on that, being sure that CDC understands and gets messages out to hospitals.”
“So you don’t think he’s shown strong leadership?” the reporter asked.
“Certainly there are issues I think on … no,” Mrs. Hagan said.
Mr. Earnest said he did not “necessarily agree with her assessment.”
“Sen. Hagan is somebody that has a track record and credentials for getting results for the people of North Carolina, even if it means criticizing members of her own party,” he said.
Former President Bill Clinton, far more popular than Mr. Obama on the campaign trail, said in Kentucky that voters shouldn’t allow their dislike of the president influence their vote in the state’s race for Senate, where Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes is trying to defeat incumbent Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.
“Make sure nobody casts a protest vote,” Mr. Clinton said on Tuesday. “Whoever heard of somebody giving a six-year job for a two-year protest?” On Wednesday, even Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, hand-picked by the president for her post, wouldn’t endorse Mr. Obama’s claim that the election will be a referendum on his agenda.
“Barack Obama was on the ballot in 2012 and 2008,” she said.
With no campaign rallies on his schedule this week, Mr. Obama was cloistered in the White House Thursday, attending three meetings with no press allowed. One was a brainstorming session with his science and technology advisers to find new ways to meet the Ebola challenge, the White House said; the president also attended a Democratic fundraiser at the massive Washington home of Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. Zillow estimated the estate’s value last year at about $17.7 million.
Mr. Obama did also conduct an interview with a radio station in Georgia to encourage black voters to turn out at the polls for Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for Senate.
“If Michelle Nunn wins, that means that Democrats keep control of the Senate,” Mr. Obama said in on station V-103, which is geared toward a black audience. “And that means that we can keep on doing some good work. So it is critically important to make sure that folks vote.”
A poll this week showed Ms. Nunn leading Republican David Perdue by 2 points, 46 percent to 44 percent.
“Michelle Nunn will win the Senate if there’s a high turnout among Democrats,” Mr. Obama said. “If there’s low or ordinary turnout, she won’t win … If folks in Georgia vote at the same rate in the midterms as they do in the presidential election, Michelle Nunn will win.”
The president said fewer than half of registered Georgia voters vote during the midterm elections.
“When you think about the tradition of Georgia, when you think about Dr. King and you think about John Lewis and you think about what the civil rights movement meant in Georgia, the notion that less than half of your people vote doesn’t make any sense whatsoever,” he said.
The Republican PAC America Rising quickly emailed a statement to make sure that voters knew about the president’s support of the Democrat, hoping to turn the tables on her.
“This is more evidence of what anyone who was paying attention already knew — Michelle Nunn will be a reliable Obama vote and electing her would only help continue the status quo,” the group said.
And the Senate Republicans’ campaign committee seized on the interview, saying Mr. Obama “made crystal clear that a vote for liberal Michelle Nunn is a vote for his liberal agenda.”
“President Obama unwittingly provided the closing argument in the Georgia Senate race,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Press Secretary Brook Hougesen. “A vote for Michelle Nunn is a vote for Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and more of the same broken Washington that Georgians are sick and tired of. A vote for David Perdue is a vote for a new direction in Washington.”
The White House wouldn’t comment Thursday about a get-out-the-vote mailer by Georgia’s Democratic Party that links the shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, to the upcoming elections.
The mailer, which uses images of black children holding signs that say, “Don’t shoot,” reads: “If you want to prevent another Ferguson in their future … Vote.” Republican officials called it insulting.