Obama, the Non-Entity: A Big 'Meh' for the Fall Elections

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The president may have several feathers in his cap, but they're covered by an invisibility cloak. As he treks across the country, his salesmanship cannot eclipse the overdetermined feeling of gloom that attends to the economy. The big debate in Washington right now is whether Obama helps or hurts Democrats across the country. Generally, presidential approval ratings correlate with the midterm performance of the president's party. Obama's average approval ratings are a hair above 45 percent and his favorability rating is lower than 50 percent.

Voters seem to be shrugging their shoulders. In Missouri, Obama's approval rating is at 34 percent, and the Democratic Senate candidate, Robin Carnahan, gets no fewer than 42 percent of the vote in recent polls. In Kentucky, Obama gets accolades from 41 percent of voters, which is equal to the percent of voters who support Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul. Obama's ratings in Ohio are higher than in other battleground states -- 45 percent -- and higher, by a few points, than Democratic Senate nominee Lee Fisher, who leads Republican Rob Portman in the latest polls. Obama's numbers in Connecticut have rebounded a bit over the past several months -- he's now at 46 percent, outpolling both Republican and Democratic Senate candidates.

There's an obvious fallacy here: candidate choice questions force you to pick between names or choose no one; Obama's approval ratings are derived by asking someone a question that does not permit them to say "none of the above." The point is that there is no strong correlation between presidential performance and current Democratic candidate performance in many states with Senate races. If anything, House Democrats have done an even better job of defining themselves as distinct and independent creatures, even though more than 40 of them have to contend with their votes in favor of health care or cap-and-trade. Obama's approval numbers in Alabama aren't going to determine whether Republicans knock off Bobby Bright, for example.

So Obama's net effect on congressional races might just turn about to be a big "meh." As skeptical as white people are about Obama's policy agenda, enough still want him to succeed. So what's the best thing for Obama to do between now and November? Instincts will persuade the White House to send the president to campaign for Democrats in safe areas and selected television markets, hoping to spark Democratic enthusiasm. As the Bush White House learned, targeted interventions can move the needles, especially when the other party's get-out-the-vote machinery is in question.

For now, the White House seems OK with Obama's "meh" effect, plus a fundraising role. The president has at least eight events scheduled for August; the Democratic National Committee will raise more than $10 million off of them and will have the opportunity to take stock of races after Labor Day. Where can $1 million help fortify a Democratic House seat? Does Patti Murray need a million to fend off Dino Rossi? Republicans won't have this extra money. They're counting on an infusion of corporate issue ads in October, defining the Democrats as ... liberal Democrats. Labor will respond by spending $53 million as one entity; unions like the SEIU will probably contribute tens of millions of dollars more.

The best thing the president can do is not to introduce new policies, not to hold town hall meetings in swing districts ... but to raise money, appear in public with his wonderful family, appear presidential, complete his successful foreign trip to Asia, and hope that he continues to be a non-factor in many congressional races.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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