By Justin Sink - 07/04/14 06:00 AM EDT
President Obama is embracing Republican criticism of his aggressive use of executive actions as he shifts his focus to the midterm elections.
The president is openly daring the GOP to challenge him, hoping he can parlay their complaints into ammunition for congressional Democrats who argue Republicans should be blamed for Washington’s dysfunction.
Democratic aides and strategists say the White House sees Speaker John Boehner’s promised lawsuit against his executive actions as a political gift because it dovetails with their preferred narrative, that the president has been acting where Congress has not.
“So sue me,” Obama said Tuesday of the lawsuit threat.
While Boehner’s lawsuit is meant to rally the GOP base, Democrats think the issue will help their party with its base and independent voters.
“Every time the Republicans attack the president for his executive actions, they are reminding the American people that unlike congressional Republicans, he is actually doing something to help them,” said senior presidential adviser Dan Pfeiffer.
While Republicans are using those stories to motivate their base, Obama hopes to show he’s trying to take action to improve the livelihoods of the middle class.
It’s not just the lawsuit that Obama is embracing as a gift.
The White House sees the Supreme Court’s decision to throw out ObamaCare’s contraception mandate as another political boon that could help Democrats increase their turnout in the fall.
The administration has taken various steps to highlight the High Court’s ruling as an assault on women and tie it to Republicans. On Thursday, Organizing for Action — the pro-Obama group born from the president's reelection campaign — took the unusual step of tweeting a photo of a birth control ad.
The ad, which read “Talk to your doctor about Birth Control and find out if it’s right for you,” had the word doctor crossed out and replaced with the word “boss.”
Throwback to last week when a woman—not her boss—made her own decisions about her health care. #TBT pic.twitter.com/xmQ5e7DFmW
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) July 3, 2014
Democrats say Senate candidates in vulnerable races can use the ruling to argue to women that it’s essential to vote this midterm, since the upper chamber is tasked with approving nominees to the Supreme Court.
The White House has also been bolstered by a string of strong jobs reports capped by Thursday’s announcement that the economy added 288,000 jobs in June.
That led Obama to take an unscheduled trip out of the White House to visit a tech startup hub in Washington and tout the encouraging report.
“We have not seen more consistent job growth since the ‘90s," Obama bragged. "But we can make even more progress if Congress is willing to work with my administration and to set politics aside — at least occasionally — which I know is what the American people are urgently looking for.”
And Obama hopes to take advantage of the GOP’s pursuit of several scandals, including the IRS and Benghazi controversies, to portray Republicans as being focused on the wrong things.
Obama’s willingness to engage with Boehner on the lawsuit is only the latest sign that he’s pivoted squarely into campaign mode.
Last week, Obama travelled to Minnesota for a series of campaign-style events, including a town hall question-and-answer session and surprise visits to an ice cream parlor, gourmet food store, and local bar.
“They understand the more he’s locked in the Rose Garden and the visible responsibilities of the office, the more he’s going to be associated with the bad feelings toward Washington,” said Democratic strategist Tad Devine. “Getting him into those venues is a smart move, it reminds people of what they like about him.”
To be sure, the White House remains worried about Obama’s anemic poll numbers. A Gallup poll released earlier this week showed Obama’s approval rating at just 40 percent.
For Obama to be a “non-factor in the midterm,” the White House needs numbers to be “into the high 40s,” the strategist said.
“Which is achievable, but hard - we don't have a whole lot of time, and there aren't a lot of legislative pathways to show momentum.”
A stronger economy, a more focused messaging campaign and a president who is out and about could help bolster those figures, the White House believes.
Casting the GOP as an effective foil would also help.
Obama has at times backed away from more aggressively attacking Republicans, in part out of hope that there could be movement on immigration reform.
That strategy has now been abandoned, and Obama is taking the GOP on more aggressively.
On Monday, he vowed to act unilaterally on immigration, blaming “the failure of House Republicans to pass a darn bill.”
Attacking the GOP has also helped Obama escape blame for his role in the dysfunction.
Obama’s “so sue me” comments came at an event to promote a transportation bill to fund the rapidly depleting Highway Trust Fund. Without Obama’s comments about the lawsuit, more attention might have been placed on Senate Democrats’ struggles to craft a bill.
Instead, headlines from the event screamed of the president's defiant challenge of Boehner.
The suit also gives expanded credibility to the president's executive actions, which had been largely dismissed as small-ball and ineffective at motivating voters.
“This, things like Benghazi are going to be a classic issue like impeachment was in the Clinton Era, where Republicans overplay their hand and suffer politically for it,” Devine said.