President Obama’s second-term focus on legacy building is coming into direct conflict with the Democratic Party’s pursuit of victory in the midterm elections.
While Obama has been fundraising for his party at a steady clip, some Democrats fear the president is more concerned about the history books than in helping his party in 2014.
“One of the big misconceptions is that the president is concerned about short-term politics. I think he’s focused on what it will look like to the next Robert Caro,” the strategist said, referring to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s biographer.
Democrats point to Obama’s announcement last week about removing troops from Afghanistan by the end of his presidency as an example of the White House’s focus on Obama’s legacy.
Others point to Monday’s announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency of sweeping new climate change rules aimed at cutting carbon emissions.
Green groups hailed the rules as a historic effort to tackle global warming, but it could hurt a number of coal-country Democrats running for election in the fall, including Alison Lundergan Grimes, the party’s prized candidate against Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
“There is the sentiment that he’s doing whatever it takes to put points on the board for his second term, emphasis on his,” said one top Democratic House aide.
Another Democratic strategist said the latest moves haven’t been “particularly helpful right before the midterms.”
“It’s putting these candidates in a really bad spot,” the aide said.
Obama allies say his legacy and the push for 2014 are not mutually exclusive.
“He needs one for the other,” said one former senior administration official. “Believe me when I say he’s the last person who wants to see the Senate change hands. If that happened, he couldn’t even get a Supreme Court justice through.”
Another former senior administration official conceded that, while Obama tries to add a few notches to his belt and “reclaim his message” after a bruising year and a half, “his legacy and the needs of Democrats are hopefully the same.”
But privately, a number of Democrats are grumbling that the White House is clearly looking after its own interests without giving a second thought to how this might affect Senate races necessary to keep the upper chamber in their column.
And several Democrats made it clear they didn’t like the EPA’s new rules.
Grimes launched a massive ad campaign this week targeting the administration on the issue, declaring, “President Obama and Washington Don’t Get It.”
She has promised she would “fiercely oppose the president’s attack” on the state’s coal industry.
It wasn’t the first time Grimes attempted to distance herself from the White House on an issue. She has also sought to put significant daylight between herself and the healthcare law, another legacy item for Obama.
Obama himself has sought to telegraph he’s all in when it comes to helping Democrats win in 2014, attending two dozen fundraisers this year and more to come this month. With everything on the line, Obama has tried to rally Democrats at fundraisers, saying that they can’t stay home on Election Day.
“That cannot happen in this election because the stakes are too high,” the president told a group of donors last month in Chicago.
Still, political observers, including Democrats close to the White House, said Obama has always been known to play the long game and is famous for dismissing the narratives of 24-hour news cycles.
“Carbon emissions, winding down a war, healthcare, all of these things pay long-term dividends,” the first former official said. “That’s what he’s thinking about.”
While there’s a tendency for second-term presidents to play for the history books, Obama “may have an eye for history more than most,” said Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University, especially given his place as the first African-American president.
But Jellison said, while other presidents have been more mindful of practical politics, Obama “does not seem to be as attuned as some other presidents to their races and what might be helpful to them.”
However, she said the latest developments with the EPA in particular won’t be “costing the president any sleep.”
“It will play well, I think, in the history books to be on the side of the planet versus the coal industry,” Jellison said.