Years of disappointment and tension between Democrats and their president are now on open display as politicians, party leaders and strategists worried about their chances in the midterm elections begin casting about for someone to blame.
A party and its president often go their separate ways during the final years of a second term, and Democrats say they appreciate Obama's decision to avoid campaigning in competitive states. But that doesn't do much to soften frustration with what they describe as near-political malpractice by the White House, basic missteps that some blame on an insular president who they say takes advice from aides with little campaign experience. “Folks are beginning to scapegoat and second guess, but there are plenty of reasons to do that,” said strategist Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “President Obama doesn't like to get his hands dirty. He seemingly floats above it all.”
On Wednesday morning, Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz refused to endorse the president's contention that the Nov. 4 vote would be a referendum on his agenda, coming within a whisker of an outright contradiction. “Barack Obama was on the ballot in 2012 and 2008," she said, when pressed in an interview on MSNBC. Two days earlier, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia told The Washington Post that there is “nothing” Obama can do to help swing competitive races to moderate Democrats. A presidential campaign visit, he said, “is not going to be productive.”
Video: How to Mount An Effective Barack Obama Defense
Even the party's top surrogates are trying to avoid explicit mentions of the president. At a Tuesday event in western Kentucky, former President Bill Clinton urged Democrats not to let their dislike of Obama influence the decision in the state's race for Senate. “Make sure nobody casts a protest vote,” he said on Tuesday. “Whoever heard of somebody giving a six-year job for a two-year protest?”
The White House, bracing for an escalation of friendly fire should Democrats lose control of the Senate, has begun laying out its post-election defense by arguing that candidates are ultimately responsible for their own electoral outcomes. “The success of many of these Democratic candidates will depend on their own success in motivating voters that strongly supported the president in 2012,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday. “It's their name that's on the ballot.”
Democratic strategist Anita Dunn, Obama's former communications director, suggested that worried candidates were seeking a scapegoat. “This is very much what happens at this time in an election cycle when people begin to look for excuses of why what they thought was going to work isn't working, why some of these races aren't going to get across the finish line,” she said.
But Democrats have a long list of grievances. The most recent item on the list is an interview Obama did this week with Rev. Al Sharpton, in which the president said that even the vulnerable Democrats who are trying to keep their distance are all “folks who vote with me. They have supported my agenda in Congress.” Though the comment may motivate black voters – a key part of the Democratic base – it infuriates campaign strategists, who say Obama basically fed a major Republican attack line.
“You can't do those things in a vacuum anymore,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons, even if “it will help turn out your core voters.”
Democrats also privately gripe that the administration's response to Ebola was too slow, playing directly into a Republican narrative of Democratic mismanagement. In August, the president's decision to issue a statement about the beheading of journalist James Foley by Islamic militants and then head directly to a golf game was viewed as tone deaf, at best, an assessment shared by the president himself.
But Democrats' biggest outrage stems from a speech Obama gave earlier this month, when a remark that his “policies are on the ballot” turned an economic speech into a potent attack ad. The remark was pre-scripted, further enraging campaign strategists when they learned it was not a spontaneous gaffe. Even friends couldn't defend the comment. “I wouldn't put that line there,” acknowledged the president's campaign guru, David Axelrod, on NBC's “Meet The Press,” calling it a “mistake.”
Within 24 hours, the line was being used in Republican campaign spots and has shown up in seven states so far.
Even less substantive gaffes are taken by strategists as a sign of sloppiness – or worse, that the Obamas simply don't care anymore. Campaigning in Iowa, first lady Michelle Obama repeatedly referred to Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley as Bruce Bailey, until she was corrected by an audience member. Her office compounded the problem by blasting out a transcript that referred to Braley as a gubernatorial candidate. It took an hour and a half before the document was corrected.
While Democrats' pre-midterm frustration is being fueled largely by his recent missteps and bad poll numbers, their disenchantment with the president was seeded back in 2011, when Obama kept waiting to strike a bigger debt limit deal with House Speaker John Boehner, one that never happened. Stumbling responses to the Syrian civil war, the emergence of the Islamic State, and a scandal that toppled the head of the Secret Service all contributed to a Republican mantra that the Democrats can't govern.
White House officials say they've done their share to help candidates. Obama has held rallies in safely blue Illinois and Maryland, hosted dozens of fundraisers that helped pull the Democratic National Committee out of debt, and shared his campaign data to help congressional candidates better target final get-out-the-vote efforts. Allies suggest that Democratic candidates and the White House simply allowed the narrative to get away from them. “Folks have allowed this story line to take hold that there is such a challenge out there in having [Obama] in these states,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. “So, if he shows up, a campaign is going to face with two or three cycles of news coverage about how challenging it is for the Democrats.”
Democrats always knew that 2014 Senate races were largely in states that did not vote for Obama in his presidential elections. If 2016 Senate races such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were on the ballot, Obama's role would be different, Dunn said. The president's chief responsibility for Democrats was to raise the money to make sure Senate candidates have the money they need to run, she said, and “nobody can question the amount of time and energy the White House has spent to make sure the resources are there.”
If Democrats retain the Senate, Earnest is “confident that the president will get his fair share of credit for that.” “I am also confident that if things don't turn out the way that we hope and expect, that the president will get at least his share of the blame,” Earnest added.