By Amie Parnes - 07/14/14 06:00 AM EDT
Democrats in tough reelection races have a blunt message for President Obama: Keep away.
Democrats are voicing their displeasure with his policies and campaign advisers are telling candidates to avoid being photographed with him, so as to deny Republicans effective visuals for campaign ads.
“It’s a no-brainer,” said one operative who works for a senator up for reelection in 2014. “The second term has been a bit of a disaster, his approval ratings are the lowest of his presidency and Washington is in disarray.”
Many of the Democratic senators elected in 2008 rode to office on Obama’s coattails. Six years later, they’re asking, “Barack who?”
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) last week avoided being at his own fundraiser while Obama was there, excusing himself on the grounds that he had to attend votes at the Capitol.
It is not just Senate Democrats who are displeased with the president. Some House members have expressed dissent over his approach to the surge of young illegal immigrants streaming across the southern border.
Last week, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) described Obama’s behavior over the border crisis as “aloof,” “detached” and “bizarre.”
Referring to a staged photo opportunity for news media when Obama drank beer and played pool in Colorado while thousands of Latino children crossed the southern border illegally, Cuellar added, “I mean, the optics are just horrible.”
The centrist Texas congressman was not the only critic. Liberal Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told MSNBC that “the borderlands deserve a presidential visit.”
He added, “I think a visit by the president is reaffirming that the borderlands along the southwest border are vital and important to this nation. So I think a visit would be important and very symbolic.”
Many Democrats in Congress complain that Obama is indifferent to their concerns. There is also a broader sense on Capitol Hill that Obama just isn’t the guy they thought he was, who would deliver on his vaunted promises of hope and change.
“He’s not the most popular man these days,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “A lot of people think it’s been one disappointment after the next and he can’t really get his bearings.”
Political observers say the White House understands the need for some Democrats to distance themselves from Obama. That is especially true in Senate contests where Democrats are seeking reelection in conservative states.
“They understand that President Obama is not the best messenger in all of these races,” said Christy Setzer, a Democratic strategist. “The White House understands this is about ... doing whatever it takes to save the Senate. In some places, that’s going to mean the president goes out and does events and, in other places, he takes a more behind the scenes role.”
Jamal Simmons, another Democratic strategist, added that Democrats such as Cuellar “have to do what’s best for themselves.
“It’s probably not making the White House happy, but he’s doing what he needs to do back home.”
Obama knows he’s radioactive but that hasn’t hurt his fundraising. Democrats love his prowess filling their campaign war chests. They just don’t want to be seen publicly embracing him.
If Republicans wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats, it will be seen as a repudiation of Obama.
Setzer suggested that Democrats in competitive races should try to fight not on national politics but on a record of local achievement.
“I think what you’re going to see is a lot of people following the Thad Cochran strategy: Talk about how you’ve been delivering for your state,” she said, referring to the Mississippi GOP senator who recently defeated a Tea Party challenger.
The latest Gallup daily tracking poll shows that Obama has a 42 percent approval rating, about the lowest of his presidency.
His pariah status contrasts starkly with that of two power brokers who are feeling the love from Democratic candidates: Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Several campaigns have already expressed an informal interest in having one of the Clintons appear alongside them on the stump.
Obama sought to poke fun at the awkward situation during an appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in May.
“Of course now that it’s 2014, Washington is obsessed on the midterms,” the president said. “Folks are saying that with my sagging poll numbers, my fellow Democrats don’t really want me campaigning with them. And I don’t think that’s true — although I did notice the other day that Sasha needed a speaker at career day, and she invited Bill Clinton.”
The president, with no more campaigns to run himself and pushed aside as a proxy, has no forum in which to display his strengths as a campaigner.
“A lot of these candidates who are in tight races are just in a place where they’re just running on their own things,” said one senior Senate Democrat. “It’s so commonplace, and he’s so unpopular, that people don’t even talk about it anymore.”
But Setzer said what Obama is experiencing is common for this place and time, nearly halfway through a president’s second term.
“We see this with every president and it’s not surprising,” Setzer said.
Still, even candidates in places where Obama could help are keeping a safe distance, choosing to stay away from the president’s policies while focusing on their own.
“We’re focused on putting our candidate out front and center,” an adviser to a 2014 Senate candidate said. “Not the national figures.”