Eons ago, if you can
remember back before the Gulf oil well was capped, before Apple
admitted flaws in its iPhone 4, Robert Gibbs shocked the world
by admitting the obvious: there are enough seats in play that Democrats
could lose the House. At Washington's warp speed, that comment morphed
into a new conventional wisdom: Democrats will
lose the House,
and maybe the Senate too. Which led to a couple of questions: Can the
White House turn around political perceptions as well as electoral
reality? And how have past presidents successfully intervened to limit
their midterm defeats? (The average loss during a president's first
term is 16 House seats.) I surveyed several veteran operatives -- many of
them former White House aides -- to find out.
All agreed that helping candidates raise money
is job one for any president. "Nobody can match a sitting president's
ability to get people to give ... and I'm surprised the Obama people
haven't done more of it," said one former Democratic White House
official, noting the financial advantage
some key Republican congressional challengers have amassed.
But strategists disagreed about whether presidential fundraising should involve side-by-side campaigning
with candidates. Two former White House advisers, one from each party,
said a president should not go to states where he is markedly unpopular
and risk tarring his party's candidate with a damaged brand. One also
noted the get-out-the-vote resources that get diverted away from
election day activities and toward building a presidential-sized crowd.
And yet, a
larger number of advisers dismissed this analysis as outdated. Harold Ickes, who
ran the Clinton administration's political office, argued that "given
the coverage -- TV, the Internet -- it doesn't matter whether [the
president] is in Butte, Montana or Washington, D.C., Democratic
candidates are connected to him." Mark Penn, former senior adviser for
both Bill and Hillary Clinton, said, "Whenever the president visits
places, it does some good. He's usually better than people expect, the
local coverage reflects that, and he can turn both heads and wallets."
those who argued for an aggressive campaign schedule believe
commanders-in-chief should be careful not to look too political. One
Democrat said, "The president doing his job well
is the best way
to help candidates in the field," and noted that, in 1994, President
Clinton's poll numbers went down when he traveled to campaign rallies
and up when he traveled to Mideast peace conferences -- "unfortunately he
did more of the former than the latter." Nicolle Wallace, a former
communications director for President George W. Bush, said that "it's
typical of Washington to get totally consumed by politics, but any
president has to remember that real people want him focused on what
they elected him to do."
More than anyone else, the president can also drive a clear message
for his party and define the choice between two sides. Penn said a
president can raise issues (like unemployment insurance) that redound
to his side's benefit. He also recalled the success of Clinton's
"progress not partisanship" theme from 1998 -- and hoped the Obama team
would push its new "forward not back"
slogan "as an explanation for why people should continue to support the
administration during a troubling economic time." Another Democrat
characterized the midterm message as "those who made the mess vs. those
who are cleaning it up" but added that "it should be delivered in a less
overtly partisan manner and reach out to independents with a tone and
tenor that is consistent with the above-politics message from '08."
Every operative agreed that there are limits to what a president can do
affect midterm results. "The best environment is a good economy," said
Ickes, "but there's only so much [Obama] can affect that at this
point." Another Democrat emphasized that congressional candidates run
their own campaigns and said that "just because Blanche Lincoln's going to
lose doesn't mean it's necessarily Obama's fault -- it might be her
fault." Wallace said that while the president "might want to lay the
groundwork for 2012 and support Obamacare and the stimulus, there are
Democrats on the ballot this year who need to oppose those policies."
She added that "there are times when the interests of presidents and
their friends in Congress diverge, and this may be that moment."
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