The White House and parts of the Democratic campaign machine envision President Barack Obama playing the role of chief messenger and fundraiser in the 2016 elections, and even as a campaigner in states and districts where his presence is requested.
A year out from Election Day, Obama is eyeing a legislative agenda that could help Democratic candidates hone their message to voters and which jumps off from the success of a recently inked budget and debt-limit deal.
Among those issues are changes to criminal justice and sentencing policies, a push to cement a sweeping trade package and continued efforts on climate policy, a senior Obama administration official told CQ Roll Call. The list could also include Obama’s ongoing fight against the Islamic State and efforts to boost the still-recovering U.S. economy.
“The budget deal has taken most of the big issues off the table,” said George Washington University political science professor Sarah Binder. “In a presidential election year, it doesn’t seem to make sense to do deals. So we’re not going to see anything on big issues like taxes or immigration.”
For a president whose campaign presence was a turnoff to vulnerable Democrats in 2014, a White House official argues Obama still has a role as the party’s spokesman in chief. While many Democrats kept their distance as the party got drubbed in the midterm elections, this senior administration official said to expect Obama to “defer to candidates” when making travel plans next year to stump for the party’s presidential nominee and those running for Congress.
“I expect the president to make a very active case on our record in office,” said the official, who was granted anonymity to speak about Obama’s 2016 plans. “The president is uniquely suited to make this case.”
The message he will deliver is still being refined, but the official expects Obama to sound a hopeful tone and “contrast that to years of Republicans’ recalcitrance in Congress.”
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The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which needs to pick up 30 House seats for the party to regain the majority, described Obama’s likely role as stumping for cash.
“In the past week alone, President Obama has fundraised for House Democrats in both Virginia and New York City,” DCCC National Press Secretary Meredith Kelly said in an email. “We know that this critical fundraising and strategic support from the president, his administration and surrogates will continue through the next year.”
On Capitol Hill, some Democrats didn’t seem excited to discuss the president’s likely role once campaign season heats up. That included the man charged with leading the fight to win back five seats to take back control of the Senate.
“I’m just focused on our candidates, and making sure they’re out touching people and raising money,” Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told CQ Roll Call. “I’ve not really thought about the role that anybody else plays but our candidates.”
Notably, Tester passed when given a chance to endorse strategic use of Obama to rouse the Democratic base, especially in the places where the president is the strongest, such as urban areas.
“I think it’s up to each Democratic candidate,” said Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a former DSCC chairman. “I’m sure there are many places where the president would be very helpful.”
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., an Obama ally on issues such as defense, told CQ Roll Call he believes Obama “will be engaged” and “can help” in 2016.
Heading into the 2014 midterms, Obama’s approval ratings were low and that made vulnerable Democrats from conservative-leaning states — such as Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, who both lost their seats — skittish about campaigning with him. Special-interest groups spent millions tying these Democrats to Obama’s policies, particularly the national health care law.
William A. Galston, a former Clinton administration official now at the Brookings Institution, said decisions on how and where Obama is used ultimately will be based on his approval ratings months down the road. Obama’s average job-approval rating is currently 44.5 percent, according to RealClearPolitics.
“If the past is any guide, the president will be used where they judge he’ll be the most useful, and that’ll be all about his [poll] numbers,” Galston said. “But he won’t be used where it might backfire.”
Obama remains unpopular with Republican voters, meaning his presence and message are unlikely to change many GOP voters’ minds. Such data points are not lost on White House officials.
“No one in this building is naive to the president’s strengths and weaknesses,” the senior administration official said.
Firing Up the Base
Still, Obama remains popular among many Democrats and is among a handful of national party figures who experts say is capable of firing up the base and motivating voters to get to the polls. That could make a difference in states such as Colorado, Florida and Nevada that will help decide the presidency as well as the Senate majority.
“Where the issue is increasing Democratic turnout, especially minority voters in swing states, the president certainly can make a difference,” Galston said, pointing to North Carolina as an example of a state in which Obama could spend ample time because, electorally, “it’s on a knife’s edge.”
One senior Republican lawmaker, however, illustrated why Obama likely will be used almost exclusively in heavily blue areas.
“I don’t have any advice for the president,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, who is being challenged by Missouri’s Democratic Secretary of State Jason Kander. “But I would not expect to see the president in Missouri.”