Dems desperately seek an Obama midterm strategy
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
May 20, 2014 05:03 AM EDT
For months, President Barack Obama has been telling donors that there’s 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 Obama’s 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. There’s 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, who’s flown up to New York to deliver them in person. Obama’s 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 hasn’t held a full briefing on House races for the president since last year. DSCC Chairman Michael Bennet of Colorado hasn’t 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.
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 anyone’s races but his own. This time — with the last two years of his term in the balance — White House aides repeat that he’s all in, insisting to operatives in the face of questions about the president’s engagement that he really is focused strategically on how he and his political operation can help.
They just can’t seem to get people to believe them.
“He cares about these elections, not just politically,” senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer told POLITICO. “It’s personal to him. These folks are not just candidates, they are the president’s friends, and have had his back for years, and he has theirs in these elections.”
But anxious Democrats point to Obama’s 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 that’s 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.
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 don’t 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 they’ve been begging for since he took office.
It’s been better, Democrats say — at least by the standard set over the last 5½ years. The president’s been better. But they’re worried better’s not enough.
“He’s more engaged than we’ve seen him before, and that’s good, but I don’t think he’s engaged in the strategy decisions or the strategy making,” said one Democratic operative involved in this year’s campaigns. “I don’t 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. “There’s more that he can do.”
It’s not Obamacare. It’s 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 electorate’s trending older, whiter and more male than Democrats need if they’re going to avoid a blowout in November. No one they’re asking seems completely sure what the Democratic Party stands for — but what they think it stands for isn’t helpful: Republicans sound as if they’re 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 they’re 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 don’t register the “income inequality” message at all — or they think it’s 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. They’re expecting a crossover rate of about 0 percent.
The problem isn’t Obamacare anymore. The problem, they worry, is Obama — his numbers, his message, his level of attention, his lack so far of strategic leadership.
Here’s what counts as good news: “Swing voters are movable — we just haven’t moved them yet,” according to one person at the meetings, “and the base is excitable — we just haven’t 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 president’s standing. After all, even at his political apex in 2008, Obama wasn’t carrying voters in Alaska, where they’re counting on Sen. Mark Begich to get reelected, or Louisiana, where Sen. Mary Landrieu’s running commercials bragging about opposing Obama on the Keystone pipeline.
But there are places where Democrats desperately want him — including six hotly contested governor’s 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 that’s asked,” said a former White House official who retains close ties. “But he realizes that this isn’t his campaign, he’s not on the ballot.”
As much as Obama’s 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, it’s 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, who’s defending the seat she won in part on the Obama turnout in 2008, Voller said, “If I’m 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. That’s unlikely to start until at least after Labor Day.
For now, they’re still in the middle of phase one: raising as much money as possible to try to minimize the crush of conservative spending. Obama’s 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 Rahall’s in West Virginia and Sen. Mark Pryor’s 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, don’t 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 aren’t 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 they’ve developed to decide how much and where to deploy the president closer to the election.
In effect, Obama’s 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 won’t 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, he’ll largely avoid the topic himself.
He tells donors he’s sure he’ll 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, there’s clear Democratic anxiety that Obama and his aides still don’t 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 he’s 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 president’s 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 haven’t 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 he’s still telling people he’s bullish about November, confident that his message is going to come together and break through. Asked during the president’s California fundraising swing whether Obama believes there’s more than a marginal chance of winning the House, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the answer is “absolutely.”
“We both believe we’re going to keep the Senate,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who’s 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 haven’t had a briefing this year.