President Barack Obama shifted into campaign mode Monday.
Obama sent out a video message to supporters of his political arm at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), with an emphasis on reaching out to voters who came out for the first time in 2008.
White House and DNC officials said Monday that Obama has not made widespread commitments to appear with candidates, but he is now clearly engaged in what will be seen as a referendum on his presidency.
“This reflects the president’s view that he has responsibilities as head of the party,” one White House official said. “We obviously want to work with the party committees to see where the president can be most helpful.”
With two special elections and two contested Democratic Senate primaries over the next month, the official indicated it’s not too early for Obama to get involved. The official noted that Obama has stepped up the number of fundraisers he has done recently.
In his video, Obama talked specifically about the need to reach out to “surge voters,” or first-time voters in minority demographics, whom Democrats think can turn the tide their way this year.
“It will be up to each of you to make sure that the young people, African-Americans, Latinos and women, who powered our victory in 2008, stand together once again,” Obama told his supporters.
On Wednesday, the DNC will give reporters more of a glimpse into its planning for the elections by opening up a strategy session with Chairman Tim Kaine, strategists, state party leaders and supporters at DNC headquarters.
DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan said Democrats are in a “unique position” because they have maintained relationships with supporters of Organizing for America by keeping them involved in pursuing the president’s agenda.
Noting that the DNC is planning to spend $50 million on races this year, Sevugan said that the DNC believes those 15 million voters can make the difference this year.
Ross Baker, an expert on the presidency and a political science professor at Rutgers University, said Obama’s message Monday indicates he is aware of the “monumental task” Democrats face in November.
“I think it’s sort of an opening act,” Baker said. “He’s warming up the audience.”
That is an unusually difficult task, as some on the left are dismayed with the president, while the right is seen as more energized than it has been since 2004.
“The energy and enthusiasm has been almost entirely anti-administration,” Baker said.
While many liberals are touting the passage of healthcare reform, some liberals are upset that climate change and immigration reform legislation has stalled. Other Democrats have criticized the administration’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For example, Bill Maher, a liberal talk show host on HBO, last week called Obama “a moderate Republican.”
Days earlier, Obama was challenged by liberal activists at a fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on his vow to scrap the Pentagon’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
“Historical trends aren’t in our favor — the president’s party generally loses seats in the first midterm election,” Plouffe said. “And even though President Obama has taken bold steps like the recovery act to put us back on the path to prosperity, escaping from a financial crisis like this one takes time.”
But Plouffe echoed what Kaine and Obama see as a path to victory, convincing surge voters to come back for their senators and representatives the way they did for Obama.
“Two years ago, we challenged a group of young and disaffected voters to participate in the 2008 election,” Plouffe said. “They cast votes for the very first time and helped us elect a new president. You told us that your top priority for 2010 was to help these people head back to the polls — and we built our plan around that goal.”
Vice President Joe Biden has already been tearing up the campaign trail this year, making stops last week in Pennsylvania, where Democrat Mark Critz is trying to hold on to the late Rep. John Murtha’s (D) seat and Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter faces a tough primary against Rep. Joe Sestak.
Other key races include the special election to replace ex-Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s (D-Ark.) effort to fend off a primary challenge. Obama has endorsed Lincoln, though it remains to be seen if he will travel to the red state for her.
For now, officials say, Obama’s time is not required on the trail, but his energy and fundraising help are.
The president’s physical presence this cycle did little to help the recent losing campaigns in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts, but White House officials publicly criticized the Democratic candidates, including Martha Coakley and Creigh Deeds, for running sub-par campaigns and not seeking earlier help from the White House.
To that end, the White House official noted, there is only so much the president can do to “supplement” what individual campaigns are doing.
Obama’s help is “not a replacement for a vibrant, well-run campaign,” the official said.
Candidates still have to raise money, keep abreast of local politics and build their own grass roots and infrastructure if the president is to be of any help, the official added.