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And yet, a larger number of advisers dismissed this analysis as outdated.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."
Even 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 to 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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