By Amie Parnes - 12/31/13 01:00 AM EST
President Obama endured a terrible 2013, raising GOP hopes of a Senate takeover in next year’s midterm elections that would turn him into an early lame duck.
The GOP needs to win six seats in the upper chamber to take a 51-49 edge, something clearly obtainable with Democrats defending difficult seats in South Dakota, Montana, West Virginia, Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina.
With the Senate and House in GOP hands, Obama would have little if any hope of moving his legislative agenda, and would be left to play defense against a GOP Congress in his final two years in office.
The White House has signaled the importance of keeping the Senate blue in a number of ways, most notably by hiring former aides close to Senate Democratic leaders and ramping up its communications.
In 2014, White House allies say Obama must focus on five things to keep both chambers from turning red:
Minimize the liabilities
Unless Obama and the White House can get the president’s signature healthcare law humming smoothly, it will pull the president’s and the Democratic Party’s approval ratings underwater in 2014.
“The biggest weight on the class of ‘14 is the success of Obamacare,” said one former senior administration official. “I’m sure there are Democrats up for reelection who are lighting candles into the New Year with the hope that it all goes well in 2014 or it’ll be like 2013 never left.”
White House confidence is bolstered by the surge of people who have enrolled in the law in recent days. More than 1.1 million people have now enrolled, and while that is lower than what the administration had hoped for, it makes reaching the 7 million enrollees projected by the Congressional Budget Office more realistic.
The hope is that the New Year will amount to a fresh start for Democrats, and that Obama will be able to tout the number of people newly insured under the law.
Yet problems will be hard to avoid. Starting on Jan. 1, people will begin going to hospitals and clinics to use ObamaCare. Every time someone’s insurance doesn’t cover the charges they’d expected, it will likely get written up.
How many problems pop up, and how well the administration does in explaining and responding to them, will go a long way toward shaping public perceptions of the law.
“You have a public that still doesn’t understand how Obamacare makes life better and a media obsessed with the glitches surrounding it,” the former senior official added. “The White House needs to put a full stop to that.”
Keep the base engaged
Midterm elections even more than presidential elections can be decided on voter turnout, and Democrats face a much tougher task with Obama off the ballot.
A CNN poll released late last week highlights the White House’s dilemma.
It found that 55 percent of registered voters say they are more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who opposes Obama than one who supports him.
This means the White House must pull all the levers they used in the 2008 and 2012 campaigns to get its base excited enough to support Obama’s party in 2014.
Democratic strategists say the White House needs to rally women, Hispanics, African Americans and young voters to the polls.
“In a midterm election, you need everybody to go out to the polls the way they do in a general election,” the former senior official said. “He needs the liberal base to turn out in droves just as Republicans have been good about getting their extremist base out for these elections.
Obama can also cater to the base’s needs by keeping his campaign arm ‘Organizing for Action’ engaged in these issues, Democrats say.
In recent months, the Democratic National Committee decided to lease some information on voters to OFA along with other Democratic Party committees to ensure that this process gets underway.
Hold the line against the GOP
When Obama has used the bully pulpit to take a hard line with Republicans, he’s seen a bump in his approval ratings.
A good example was during the government shutdown, when the White House refused to negotiate with the GOP over concessions on a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government.
“Democrats won in a huge way when Obama didn’t back down on the CR,” the former senior official said.
Allies say Obama also benefitted because the shutdown divided the GOP. They say the White House needs to identify more policies that drive a wedge between mainstream and Tea Party Republicans.
“Every time [Senator] Ted Cruz threatens to default, [Senator] Mark Pryor’s staff breathes a little easier,” the former official added. Pryor (D-Ark.) is a top GOP target in 2014.
Picking the right fights also telegraphs a message of strength from the White House.
“People respect strength and every time the president exhibits it, he does well,” Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said.
Take a page out of the Clinton playbook
Yes, Bill Clinton’s approval ratings at this time in his presidency were much higher than Obama’s.
(Clinton had an approval rating hovering around 57 percent at the end of the first year in his second term while Obama has a 39 percent approval rating—with a 54 percent disapproval rating, according to the latest Gallup poll.)
But the former president’s approval ratings climbed over the course of his second term—even as he was dogged by the Monica Lewinsky scandal – because he was able to tout the growing economy and surrounded himself with the right advisers in the West Wing.
Last month, Obama hired John Podesta—a key force behind Clinton’s surge in the second term. The move was welcome news to top Democrats, many of who urged the White House to consider a staff shake-up.
Obama should take additional cues from the so-called ‘Explainer in Chief’, Democrats say.
“They need to capture an aspirational economic message and talk up the economy,” Simmons said, adding that it’s something Clinton did well.
He also said the White House needs to decide upon a message and be consistent about delivering it.
“The White House is good at a lot of things but message consistency is not one of them,” Simmons said, adding that White House should “bring back the perpetual campaign.”
Sometimes the best thing Obama can do to help his party is to get out of the spotlight.
Candidates running in tough Senate races, for example, will need Obama’s support and his money. But the don’t always need him standing on stage with them.
Natalie Tennant, a Democrat from West Virginia taking on GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito for an open Senate seat, is proof of that.
Tennant attended a New York fundraiser where first lady Michelle Obama urged donors to write big-dollar checks for candidates like her. Afterwards — trying to prevent criticism from voters who don’t support Obama — she said the fundraising didn’t amount to an endorsement from Obama’s wife.
The White House may experience more of this as Election Day approaches, just as Republicans were quick to distance themselves from George W. Bush near the end of his second term.
“Every president is going to have folks who are less enthusiastic about having them stand beside them,” the former senior administration official said.
“It’s not personal, just business,” Simmons added.