Skip to comments.Dems desperately seek an Obama midterm strategy
Posted on 05/20/2014 9:53:03 AM PDT by Second Amendment First
For months, President Barack Obama has been telling donors that theres nothing more important to him than the November elections.
But many Democrats say their biggest worry for the fall is the president himself.
The problem, according to the nearly two dozen top Democratic operatives and outside allies who shared their frustration with POLITICO, is Obamas investment or lack thereof in the midterms. The White House, they complain, has yet to broaden its economic message. The president has no set meetings with his political staff, and does little to help beyond headlining events to activate big donors. Theres no strategic direction.
Former President Bill Clinton and his staff have been getting regular midterm briefings from Democratic campaign staffers including updates by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil, whos flown up to New York to deliver them in person. Obamas only conversations about races or dynamics with anyone connected with the main campaign committees, they said, have been limited to short chats en route to or at fundraisers.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Steve Israel of New York hasnt held a full briefing on House races for the president since last year. DSCC Chairman Michael Bennet of Colorado hasnt had an extended conversation with Obama about the state of play since an Oval Office meeting at the beginning of February. Over 45 minutes between two rides in the presidential limo to events in Connecticut, Obama did grill Democratic Governors Association Chairman Peter Shumlin of Vermont about which races were realistic targets and what he could do to help.
(Also on POLITICO: Mounting danger for Dems)
That was March 5. According to the three committees, that was the last time Obama spoke with any of the campaign chairs outside of an event.
Throughout his presidency, Democrats have griped that Obama has never focused on anyones races but his own. This time with the last two years of his term in the balance White House aides repeat that hes all in, insisting to operatives in the face of questions about the presidents engagement that he really is focused strategically on how he and his political operation can help.
They just cant seem to get people to believe them.
He cares about these elections, not just politically, senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer told POLITICO. Its personal to him. These folks are not just candidates, they are the presidents friends, and have had his back for years, and he has theirs in these elections.
But anxious Democrats point to Obamas low-40s approval ratings as the kind of anchor-round-the-neck numbers that could cost the party real ground in the House, and enough Senate races to lose the majority. His failure so far to present a broad, compelling message on the economy beyond an emphasis on raising the minimum wage thats fallen flat with middle-class voters has, according to internal Democratic polling and focus groups, left that group without a clear sense of what he or the party stands for beyond helping the poor.
(Also on POLITICO: NRCC aims for 245 House seats)
And the worst part, say these party aides and outside allies, is that less than six months before Election Day Obama and the White House still dont seem in a real rush to start fixing any of those problems.
Pfeiffer and White House political director David Simas did meet in the West Wing for Obama with the old campaign brain trust of David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Joel Benenson, Messina and others in April to talk about 2014, among other issues, according to one attendee but that was the last time the group convened.
Heading into the summer of what national polls and trends forecast as a bloody election season, the White House points to evidence it has retooled its approach, with a revamped political office, new outreach and information sharing among campaign committees and a level of presidential fundraising finally approaching the mark Democrats say theyve been begging for since he took office.
Its been better, Democrats say at least by the standard set over the last 5½ years. The presidents been better. But theyre worried betters not enough.
Hes more engaged than weve seen him before, and thats good, but I dont think hes engaged in the strategy decisions or the strategy making, said one Democratic operative involved in this years campaigns. I dont know that we need him to be the political strategist as long as somebody is.
Obama could elevate the races. He could communicate that message to donors, said another involved operative. Theres more that he can do.
(PHOTOS: Obamas second term)
Its not Obamacare. Its Obama.
Every month, top aides from the White House, DNC and the main campaign committees gather at DNC headquarters for a review of new polls and focus group data by Benenson and fellow Obama pollster David Binder, billed to the DNC (though not quite paid for, given its multimillion-dollar debt.)
The results have been depressing: The electorates trending older, whiter and more male than Democrats need if theyre going to avoid a blowout in November. No one theyre asking seems completely sure what the Democratic Party stands for but what they think it stands for isnt helpful: Republicans sound as if theyre out to help the rich, but Obama and Democrats talking about minimum wage and, to a lesser extent, unemployment insurance as opposed to college affordability or job training sounds like theyre just out to help the poor.
Neither party comes off as watching out for the people who are working day by day to get by. People either dont register the income inequality message at all or they think its about government handouts.
And so for months, the meeting has been the scene of a weird kind of argument where everyone claims to agree but little changes.
Obamacare is indeed fading as an issue in the DNC polls, but Republicans are still significantly more motivated. Theyre expecting a crossover rate of about 0 percent.
The problem isnt Obamacare anymore. The problem, they worry, is Obama his numbers, his message, his level of attention, his lack so far of strategic leadership.
Heres what counts as good news: Swing voters are movable we just havent moved them yet, according to one person at the meetings, and the base is excitable we just havent excited them yet.
White House aides want to frame each Senate, House and gubernatorial race as being much more about the two candidates on the ballot than a reflection of the presidents standing. After all, even at his political apex in 2008, Obama wasnt carrying voters in Alaska, where theyre counting on Sen. Mark Begich to get reelected, or Louisiana, where Sen. Mary Landrieus running commercials bragging about opposing Obama on the Keystone pipeline.
(WATCH: Some of 2014's wackiest campaign ads)
But there are places where Democrats desperately want him including six hotly contested governors races in states that Obama won twice and Republicans are defending incumbents elected in the anti-Obama wave of 2010, not to mention his home state of Illinois, and prime Obama territory like Michigan, Iowa and New Hampshire.
The individual campaigns and individual candidates matter a great deal. They are going to have their own strategy and their own tactics, and they are going to make their own decisions. All he can do is help financially and help turn out the vote when thats asked, said a former White House official who retains close ties. But he realizes that this isnt his campaign, hes not on the ballot.
As much as Obamas dipped nationally, he retains an intense power with the Democratic base, and can focus attention on the Democratic argument like no one else. Even in a marginal state like Georgia, they think his influence among African-Americans and Latinos especially if he starts talking immigration might be enough to push Michelle Nunn over the top.
Whenever we can bring the president into our state, its great for the base, and when the base rallies, we win elections, said North Carolina Democratic chair Randy Voller. Then again, when asked about what Obama might do for Sen. Kay Hagan, whos defending the seat she won in part on the Obama turnout in 2008, Voller said, If Im running a campaign, they may say strategically they want to bring someone else in.
The battle plan
White House aides have a three-phase sketch between now and Election Day. Not until the last one will the president be headlining campaign rallies and in-state candidate events. Thats unlikely to start until at least after Labor Day.
For now, theyre still in the middle of phase one: raising as much money as possible to try to minimize the crush of conservative spending. Obamas done 18 events so far, with 19 more already on the books according to the White House, and even more being discussed. Together, these will inject tens of millions of dollars into the DSCC, DCCC, DGA and DNC.
Races like Rep. Nick Rahalls in West Virginia and Sen. Mark Pryors in Arkansas places where heavy spending has Democrats running even in decidedly non-Obama-friendly territory are their proof that putting money in the bank can be more important than anything else the president would do.
On other fronts, the moves are far less certain. Less than six months out, there is no substantial outreach to the stakeholders out in the states to get them ready, with senior aides just last week beginning to get serious about putting together a memo for the president and the first lady advising them on how and where they might spend time.
People on the ground say they should have heard from the White House already, dont know what to expect and are still having trouble plugging in to the revered Obama campaign data especially its volunteer list. They have started to give up on waiting.
There will be no parachuting in in the fall, said Chris Redfern, the Ohio Democratic chairman. I would be encouraged if the president would take us up on our offer to host him here and would hope to see him here sooner rather than later.
As for appearances at the Senate Majority PAC and House Majority PAC that the White House promised and which could help rouse major donors, there still arent dates or any signal from the White House that the president will do all that many, or that anyone else from the administration might be dispatched for separate PAC events.
Next, White House aides have to figure out which voters still want Obama around, and whether they care what he has to say.
So phase two, starting next month and through the summer, Obama will do a series of events to talk about core issues linked to clear constituencies: the minimum wage (working-class voters), equal pay (women), infrastructure investment (labor).
At every stop, a common theme: those awful, obstructionist Republicans.
Aides will be watching local responses to each of the issues he talks about, feeding fresh data into the data-driven, analytic strategy theyve developed to decide how much and where to deploy the president closer to the election.
In effect, Obamas team will be road-testing the president, seeing how much of a positive response he can still generate, and whether he can do anything to move his own numbers.
Wary of upsetting the last-ditch chance of a deal with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Obama wont hit as hard on immigration reform. And though Obama said at a press conference last month that Democrats should forcefully defend and be proud of Obamacare, hell largely avoid the topic himself.
He tells donors hes sure hell have the country behind him.
The good news is, on every issue that you and I care about the country is actually on our side, the president said last Wednesday at a DSCC fundraiser in New York. There are very few issues, if any, in which the Republican position enjoys the majority public support.
But privately, theres clear Democratic anxiety that Obama and his aides still dont get the difference between issues that have public support raising the minimum wage or background checks for guns, say and those that actually get people to the polls.
This is my priority.
Last Tuesday, in a weekly meeting of progressive leaders organized by the Office of Public Engagement, Pfeiffer laid out the preliminary plans for the travel outreach, as hes also started to do in conversations with leaders on the Hill in recent weeks. Then he gave them a homework assignment: to let him know what new executive orders they might want to see to help generate excitement for the fall.
For now, Simas and his staff spend most of their time collecting concerns and requests and arranging fundraisers. This is no small thing for a White House where political calls had long gone unanswered and certainly not quickly responded to.
We ask aggressively and they respond affirmatively, said Israel, the DCCC chairman.
White House aides say there will be more gatherings of the Obama brain trust as summer approaches, guided by the presidents instruction that he wants all his outside advisers focus to stay on 2014, not 2016.
Already, chief of staff Denis McDonough has been convening separate regular meetings that include Pfeiffer, Simas and top Hill ambassador Katie Beirne Fallon to meet with outside allies from groups like the Center for American Progress to talk through the agenda.
Cautious to the point of over-correction from the George W. Bush era, the political office has no advance input on trail schedules or television ads, and steers clear of directing Cabinet secretaries or anyone else from within the administration.
But few outside the West Wing have felt a clear sense of strategy or control emanating from the bank of offices where Simas and his staff sit on the first floor, not far from the White House Mess.
They havent felt it from the Oval Office, either, even as the president has started griping to donors about Democrats congenital disease that keeps them from voting in midterms.
The midterms are critical, Obama said Monday night at a DCCC fundraiser, and Democrats have to have the same sense of urgency they do around presidential elections.
Yet hes still telling people hes bullish about November, confident that his message is going to come together and break through. Asked during the presidents California fundraising swing whether Obama believes theres more than a marginal chance of winning the House, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the answer is absolutely.
We both believe were going to keep the Senate, said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), whos discussed races with Obama at leadership meetings and advised the White House on messaging.
But operatives are clamoring for more than that faith.
Standing off to the side at the start of a recent fundraising event, Obama leaned in to Israel. Bennet was still giving his introduction, and they had a few minutes to catch up.
How we doing? Obama said, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Where can I be helpful?
Israel quickly ran through a few local House races, and Obama listened, nodding along.
This, Obama told him, is my priority.
They still havent had a briefing this year.
I’ve got their strategy right here. Admit you were wrong to support an complete unknown with no credentials, no proof of his lineage or place of birth, no proof he’s a ‘traditional’ or even regular American. Admit you put him there because he is black. Admit you cringe at what he says or the excuses he gives for incompetence and efforts to blame anybody but him.
Just admit you were wrong - horribly wrong. And let’s move on from here.
A lot of words.
Maybe they should face the fact that he doesn’t care about them any more than he does the conservatives or the veterans they could figure something out
No. They’ll replace him with another America hating woman or minority and that’ll be the beginning of another round of this
Pres Castro. Great. Ted Cruz’ dad ll love that. Not
God save us from the next thing that obama is focused like a laser beam on!
Juan and Julio are Cuba-connected? Wow. You think I’d know that, being a Texan.
I don’t know where they are from. I will in a few minutes
Well for starters, if they want action they need to talk to Jarrett or Soros. BOH doesn’t know his administration is doing anything until he hears it in the news media.
It would make a lot of sense, though.
why don’t they just run on obama’s “record”?
I think the ‘Shelter in Place’ strategy is the only thing that will work for them...
Looking like the fix, doesn’t it? Just like zero’s smugness over ‘12 when he knew the vote fraud fix was in.
Because the man is a NARCISSIST and DOES NOT CARE about ANYBODY but HIMSELF!
What is it about that you Dems just refuse to get?
I also expect them to bunker up.
It’s good, the press will be forced to confront them.
The prestitutes are going to hate that.
Here's what dems will do - they'll bring in a few million more illegals for the rest of us to support... so they have more dems on the rolls. Then with more dems on the roles they'll vote the people who don't show up to vote... in short - fraud.
All this hand wringing is for the sake of the fools at the New York Times who buy into any democrat lie that drops...
The press will find ways to kiss dem butts... not to worry - there’s nothing dems can do that would upset their team of ‘press release rewrite boys’....
Exactly. If they want to salvage their party they should jump on the impeachment bandwagon to force his immediate resignation.
The Rats don’t get it. Obama doesn’t give a tinkers dam about any body but himself. They are on their own