By Amie Parnes - 10-28-14 06:00 AM EDT
Democrats are casting blame on the White House as their sense of foreboding rises with the midterm elections just a week away.
The core of the detractors’ argument is simple: President Obama could be doing more to keep the Senate in his party’s hands.
But the president’s defenders say he is boxed in by political realities. Even as some Democrats call for him to be more vocal and prominent, candidates in battleground states are paddling furiously to put as much clear blue water as possible between themselves and the man in the White House.
Still, the chorus of complaint is growing. Some Democrats assert that the administration’s flubs on healthcare and Ebola have been electorally costly. Others allege a failure to excite the base. Still others say that at times the White House just hasn’t seemed unduly bothered whether or not control of the Senate flips to the GOP.
Christy Setzer, a Democratic strategist, is among those who believe that Obama should have removed himself from much of the fight.
"Sometimes the best strategy is to get out of the way [since] a Democratic president is almost always going to be a liability for Democrats running in red states," she said.
Setzer added that even the relatively mild degree to which Obama has gotten involved has complicated matters for candidates in tight races such as Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.).
"That's why it's puzzling — and to the Kay Hagans of the world, infuriating — the number of times President Obama has stepped in it, repeatedly reminding voters that a vote for Hagan is a vote for Obama's policies," Setzer said.
One Democratic aide who has been involved in a tight race for much of the cycle agreed. This source said that Obama’s propensity to declare that his policies are on the ballot next Tuesday has amounted to "a major hit against Democrats fighting to stay alive."
Republicans have seized an opportunity to hit Democrats on that particular point.
"We're guessing the invitations for Obama to campaign with the Democrats got lost in the mail," said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee on Monday. "Can't blame the Democrats who have spent the past couple of years running from Obama only to have him scream from the rooftops that his policies are on the ballot and a Democrat win will help push his policies in the next Congress."
In addition, observers thought it was telling that Obama was holed up at the White House all weekend, with the exception of a golf outing on Saturday, instead of campaigning for Democrats.
"He and his team could have made it clear a long time ago that there's nothing more important than the Senate remaining in Democratic hands in 2014," said one top Democratic strategist.
But this strategist added that the White House has "already set up their defense" for a potential loss next week, essentially arguing that it is the candidates themselves who will be responsible for victory or defeat.
"They're laying the predicate down for the blame to come. It's really obvious," the strategist said.
The White House appeared defensive about Obama's schedule on Monday. Asked about Obama's lax campaign schedule over the weekend and into the start of the week, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest maintained that the president would have an aggressive campaign schedule.
"Those who are interested in seeing the president campaigning will have ample opportunity to do so over the course of this week," Earnest said during the White House press briefing.
The White House spokesman cited a schedule that includes campaign stops in Wisconsin, Maine and Michigan, followed by travel to Pennsylvania and Connecticut, where Obama would be "actively campaigning in support of Democratic candidates."
But Obama's schedule did not include many appearances alongside Senate candidates, reporters pointed out.
Earnest did not agree with an assessment that Obama is considered "politically toxic" to many Democrats around the country. But others acknowledged that his unpopularity imposes its own restraints.
"I'm not so sure he can be doing anything else besides what he's been doing," said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who previously served as a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) "Because of his low approval ratings, there aren't a lot of states that he can go to."
The White House can, in its own defense, point to actions it has taken with the clear intention of reducing the electoral burdens on embattled Democrats. The postponement of executive action on immigration reform and the refusal to nominate a replacement for outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder are two such moves.
Similarly, the president has undertaken prodigious fundraising efforts, while popular surrogates including Vice President Biden and, to a lesser degree, first lady Michelle Obama have racked up miles on the campaign trail.
Still, Setzer argued that the president could have helped "bring out the base," as he had done in prior elections. She pointed out that in 1998, then President Bill Clinton, spent time on African American radio and "campaigned aggressively" to bring out the rest of the base.
"Obama should be doing the same," she said.
In fairness to Obama, he has given a considerable number of interviews to black radio outlets. But those appearances, precisely because they seem part of an effort to stoke a loyal constituency into action, have also resulted in some comments that have been seized upon with glee by Republicans.
The most recent prominent example came when Obama, appearing on Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show, declared that incumbents from his party “vote with me; they have supported my agenda in Congress.”
Those who worked at the White House early in Obama's tenure say that reverberations from some of the president's policies, including healthcare, will be felt in the midterms.
"On healthcare, we have always been swimming against the tide of public opinion," one former senior administration official said. "You add to that the unfortunate items like the Secret Service snafu, ISIS and Ebola and it allows Republicans to portray the White House as unresponsive," the former official said.
The former official added that the White House also failed early on in the cycle by not providing go-to staffers in the West Wing who could help with talking points and other issues.
"In the first term, lawmakers always felt like there was someone they could call if they weren't going through legislative affairs," the former official said. "You had [Pete] Rouse, [David] Axelrod, [David] Plouffe, [Jim] Messina," the official added referring to a long line of top Obama aides. "No one really feels they have that anymore."
"The problems didn't just begin recently," the former official added. "They started awhile back."