By: Jonathan Martin
October 8, 2014
CHICAGO — When he soared to victory by almost 10 million votes in 2008, President Obama won in states like Virginia that Democratic candidates had not captured since 1964. He was trumpeted as a transformational leader who remade American politics by creating a new electoral map and a diverse voter coalition to shape the Democratic Party for the 21st century.
But for now he has been reduced to something else: an isolated political figure who is viewed as a liability to Democrats in the very states where voters by the thousands had once stood to cheer him.
When Mr. Obama entered the campaign fray last week, he did so by returning to the unconditional embrace of his own hometown, in a blue state where the incumbent Democratic senator faces scant opposition and the Democratic governor is running in part on his support for the Affordable Care Act. On Tuesday, the president attended private fund-raisers in Manhattan, to be followed by similar events in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Arkansas it is not.
As November nears, Mr. Obama and his loyalists are being forced to reconcile that it is not only Democrats in conservative-leaning states, like Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who are avoiding him. The president who became the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to twice win a majority of the vote is flying in politically restricted airspace.
Democratic senators in Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia — states that were pivotal to his success and whose demographics reflect his winning coalition of young, minority and female voters — do not want him. Nor does his party’s Senate nominee in Iowa, where Mr. Obama won twice and whose youth-filled 2008 Democratic caucuses vaulted him toward the nomination.
Some leading Democrats say it would be better for him to make the case for the party’s economic policies safely away from the most crucial races — as he did last week in Illinois.
“It’s not so important where he says it — it’s what he says,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.
Last week, speaking at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Mr. Obama declared that while he was not up for re-election, his “policies are on the ballot.” Immediately, Republicans pounced, putting the clip in videos to link their rivals to the president. Democrats winced, and David Axelrod, the longtime Obama adviser, acknowledged Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the remark was “a mistake.”
A succession of domestic and foreign crises, along with some self-inflicted wounds, has badly tarnished Mr. Obama. And that is on top of the history of the president’s party doing poorly in midterm elections.
But Mr. Obama is no ordinary president in the eyes of his supporters, who believe he has permanently reshaped the makeup of his party and the way Democrats ought to go about winning elections. And his diminished role in this year’s campaign has set off the first stirrings of a debate sure to grow louder if Democrats lose the Senate next month.
Mr. Obama’s aides say they understand that candidates will make their own decisions as it relates to using the president. But a central tenet of Mr. Obama’s formula for success is that Democrats win by motivating core voters to turn out as much as they do by persuading swing voters — and that nobody can rouse the base like Mr. Obama. So for candidates to distance themselves from the president, or even disparage him, is to ignore a potential path to victory.
But other Democrats contend that Mr. Obama is a drag on his party. Even among young voters and women, two of Mr. Obama’s core constituencies, the president has lost popularity.
“We have built on the targeting and turnout operations that the Obama campaign developed and are involving the president to engage voters in the most efficient ways,” said Matt Canter, a senior official at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Mr. Obama is taping recordings that will be used for get-out-the-vote phone calls, radio ads and videos. But that such targeted efforts — “efficient ways,” as Mr. Canter put it — are being used, rather than deploying the president to swing states, speaks to his weak standing.
Democrats beyond Mr. Obama’s orbit also dispute the idea that the president has a special hold on the rising demographic that has given the party a formidable electoral coalition.
“We began building a Democratic coalition well before this president, and it’s going to be strong well after this president,” said Rick Palacio, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, noting that candidates there tapped into the state’s changing demographics to win in 2004.
For Senator Mark Udall to win, the first-term Colorado Democrat must show that he stands for “the Colorado way, not the Obama way or the Democratic way,” said Ken Salazar, a former senator from Colorado who served as Interior secretary during Mr. Obama’s first term.
Asked if he would have invited Mr. Obama to the state if he were running this year, Mr. Salazar paused, chuckled and said: “President Obama is a good friend of mine, and he would always be welcome in my home. But I’m not running for political office and am not going to answer your hypothetical.”
While his campaign schedule is fluid, the president intends to spend the rest of the month focusing in public on economic growth and in private on raising money for his party. Aides say that Mr. Obama plans to give a series of speeches focusing on different sectors of the economy, along with events dedicated to economic issues concerning women and young voters, as well as ways to bolster the clean energy economy. Aides previewed that plan last month to Democratic senators who urged a tight focus on pocketbook issues.
“I said people are worried about Ebola and ISIS, but what they have to live day to day is making ends meet,” Mr. Schumer said. “It’s very important he not just talk about what he has accomplished, but what he wants to do in the future.”
Mr. Obama’s loyalists say they, too, are eager to return to domestic issues. “When people are jumping a fence at the White House and Ebola is in Dallas it’s hard to get a message through,” said Robert Gibbs, Mr. Obama’s former press secretary.
Where exactly Mr. Obama ought to be delivering his campaign message, though, is still debated in Democratic circles.
Representative Steve Israel, the New York Democrat who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, suggested he would like Mr. Obama to visit three solidly blue states that are home to competitive House contests. “In California, Illinois and New York, the president is very helpful,” he said.
But Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois, a Democrat running for re-election who is hoping to get Mr. Obama back to Chicago for a rally, said his counterparts risked turning off Democratic voters by spurning the president. “I think they’re making a big mistake,” he said.
But Democrats no longer on the ballot believe the president should focus his time on his most loyal constituency.
“I’d have Obama on an evangelistic schedule of black churches all over the country,” said Willie Brown, the former mayor of San Francisco. “I think he really should go to the black base. I don’t think there’s any other place I would trust he wouldn’t create an adverse reaction rather than a positive reaction.”
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