Image: Barack Obama
Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  AP
President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Wednesday, Aug., 3, 2011.
updated 9/1/2011 12:46:21 PM ET 2011-09-01T16:46:21

It’s been a tough summer for swing-district Democrats seeking reelection in 2012 with a president at the top of the ticket whose approval ratings are in the weeds.

As these members begin to focus on their reelection bids after Labor Day, they are increasingly calculating how close is too close to an unpopular President Obama.

Take Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who represents a district that nearly went for Republican George W. Bush in 2004. In a recent local TV interview, DeFazio said of Obama that the word “fight” isn’t “in his vocabulary” — and he then repeated the criticism to constituents at a town hall. Or Rep. Bill Owens, D-N.Y., who won a Republican-friendly district in a special election last year and pointedly declined to endorse the sitting president last week.

The president’s dismal poll ratings, should they continue into next year, could sink Democratic hopes for reclaiming ground in the House and retaining control of the Senate — especially in battleground states and swing districts.

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“If he is where he is now, it’s not going to work for Democrats,” said Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., who opted earlier this year not to seek reelection in his competitive district.

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Democrats are also keeping their distance in two House special elections taking place later this month — in both a solidly-Democratic district in New York City and a Republican-leaning one in rural Nevada. The sting of Obama’s low approval ratings is already being felt in Queens and Brooklyn, where Republican candidate Bob Turner has turned the Democratic-leaning district into a battleground by framing the special election as a referendum on the administration and its treatment of Israel. Liberal firebrand Anthony Weiner held onto that district with ease for more than a decade, and even when scandal forced him out of office, few had thought the race to replace him would be close.

In the Nevada race to replace Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., in the House, national Republican groups have aired advertisements connecting Democratic nominee Kate Marshall with Obama. Strategists from both parties expect Republican Mark Amodei to prevail — in a district where Obama won 49 percent in 2008.

It’s a sea change from the early days of his presidency, when liberal and moderate Democrats alike sought to tie themselves to the president and benefit from his popularity and charisma. Most moderate Democrats supported his stimulus and health care reform legislation that they’re now distancing themselves from. Less than two years ago, Owens tied himself to the president’s agenda in his initial campaign for Congress. That’s now a distant memory.

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Obama’s approval has dropped below 40 percent in Gallup’s tracking poll in recent weeks, and surveys show him running even with Republican presidential front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. Most analysts believe Obama’s approval needs to be at least above 45 percent to have a good chance of winning reelection next year.

“I represent a district that Obama lost by 11 points in 2008,” said Rep, Jason Altmire, D-Pa., whose conservative district is being targeted by national Republicans. “I would not expect him to do well in this district.”

But Obama’s iffy prospects shouldn’t send Altmire and other vulnerable Democrats fleeing from the president, veteran strategists say. The calculus is a complicated one that should take into account that Obama remains more popular than Republicans in Congress.

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Running away from the president could discourage loyal Democrats who still have faith in Obama from turning out at the polls in 2012. What’s more, if the Republican nominee turns out to be a tea-party branded conservative like Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann, Obama could plausibly pitch himself as the more reasonable, less ideological candidate to independent voters.

Democratic strategists suggest that downballot Democrats should focus on the president’s agenda, which includes a balanced approach to deficit reduction with both tax increases and spending cuts, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and raising taxes on the wealthy.

"Anyone who says Obama is going to be a drag on the ticket should look [at] the polling numbers for congressional Republicans," said Mary Anne Marsh, a Massachusetts-based Democratic consultant. “Democrats running in 2012 should realize that the better he does, the better they will do.’’

In 2010, a number of Democrats sought to steer clear of the president to no avail. The Democratic nominee for governor in Florida, Alex Sink, ducked Obama during fundraising visits and ended up narrowly losing to Republican Rick Scott amid disappointing Democratic turnout. Former Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., went so far as to announce during his reelection campaign that he voted for John McCain in 2008. The 21-year incumbent fell to a first-term state representative.

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“There are a number of people — who are now former members of Congress — who tried to distance themselves from the president. It didn’t work,” said Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant J.J. Balaban.

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Florida-based Democratic pollster Dave Beattie noted that despite Obama’s waning popularity, some surveys show him in greater favor than the conservative tea party movement. Beattie pointed to four Democratic senators — Chris Coons in Delaware, Richard Blumenthal in Connecticut, Michael Bennet in Colorado, and Harry Reid in Nevada — who won tough races in 2010 not by distancing themselves from Obama, but by running moderate campaigns that contrasted favorably with their more colorful, edgy Republican rivals.

Democrats running in 2012 should take their cue from those 2010 successes, Beattie said.

“There’s a greater fear of tea-party extremism than a fear of Obama,’’ he said. “I don’t think there will be a lot of Democrats actively running against Obama because those who are left are in swing areas where the president will be competitive.’’

The place where vulnerable Democrats are most likely to break with the president is over spending cuts. While they are on solid ground to criticize Obama for not going far enough to trim the budget, they may go astray if they start personally attacking him.

Video: Pfeiffer: President’s plan will tackle jobs (on this page)

“Democrats don’t want their races to be about Obama,’’ said Beattie, “but for many of them, he’s still a net positive."

The article, "Democrats Distancing Themselves From Obama," first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Pfeiffer: President’s plan will tackle jobs

  1. Closed captioning of: Pfeiffer: President’s plan will tackle jobs

    >>> well, if timing is everything, the latest fallout in washington may not bode well for the debay over jobs. if the two sides can't even agree on when to talk about the unemployment crisis, how can they agree on a plan to solve it? dan pfeiffer is the white house communications director . he joins me now from the white house briefinging room. dan , let me start with this question.

    >> sure.

    >> why did -- why did you consul -- wait until yesterday morning to consult with the speaker's office on a date and time? and then why did you send out the tweet you sent out about an hour and a half later before you got the official letter inviting you to address the joint session of congress ?

    >> well, we had a conversation yesterday morning with the speaker's office at a high level here in the white house and proposed the date of wednesday and the time. and they didn't raise an objection. the they raised an objection, we wouldn't have gone forward with that date. if there had been some concerns they needed more time to work through the logistics and said that to us, we would have held off. this is all sort of a silly thing. if they said we can't do wednesday, we'll do thursday, we would have gone after thursday. so wednesday would have been preferable because it was the first day congress was back, but thursday is fine, as well.

    >> so did speaker boehner tell -- i believe we reported that it was chief of staff bill bailey -- did he specifically tell bill bailey yes, specifically, september 7th , i'll make it work?

    >> they raise nod objections to the date or time.

    >> what does that mean? what does that mean, meaning it was boehner saying, all right, bill, and that's about it? or was there some specifics here?

    >> well, i'm certainly not going to get in the habit of reading out conversations between the white house chief of staff and the speak of the house, but there was no -- we had no reason to believe after that confers that there was any reason that wednesday could not work for logistical or other reasons for the speaker.

    >> all right. let's talk about just quickly, do you guys -- have you decided on what time you'll speak? i know you've said you're not sure yet and are trying to work through that. what time?

    >> we're working through that with the congressional leadership and with the networks including yours. everyone in america should be rest assured that we will be done before kickoff in the packers/saints game on thursday night. no worries there.

    >> all right. i want to talk about substance here, which is what's going to be in the plan and what's not going to be in the plan. i've been told that, look, this is going to be focused on job creation . does that mean we will not have -- hear the president propose something, for instance, to try to deal with what's going on in the housing crisis?

    >> well, what you'll hear from the president is a speech about how we grow the economy and create jobs. he will talk specifically and unveil that night a specific package of measures to create jobs and grow the economy. there are other things we're going to need do beyond specific things and we'll have more detail for wednesday nigh, tax cuts for individuals and businesses, infrastructure ideas, help for the long-term unemployed. there are things beyond that we have to do to get out of the economic mess we're in, no question, and housing is at the top of that list. the president has been doing a lot on housing. we're going to have more to say about that. some in the speech obviously but also down the line as well. we'll be there on wednesday night -- thursday night, excuse me, freudian slip , to talk about will be a very specific set of initiatives focused on job creation as soon as possible.

    >> now, you guys have said jay carney in the briefing, you have said this, others have, that this is going to be proposals that have traditionally gotten bipartisan support in the past. does that mean you are grabbing ideas, you're going to be putting republican names to it? can you give a little more -- show a little more leg, if you will, on exactly what you mean by that?

    >> what we mean is the things i mentioned here, and we'll have, as i said, more details in the speech, infrastructure proposals, tax cuts , are things ha in previous areas with different iterations by the republican party , have been supported by independent parties, economic experts, people of all stripes, those are the sorts of things the president will talk about in the speech. i suspect there will be things he'll have in the speech that will have been previously supported by members in the audience that night. whether they're named or not, you'll have to wait till the speech to see. but there's no reason i think these proposals should not be done. the only thing that will keep them from being done is politics. and if congress and the house republican leadership in specific is going to let politics in the way of creating jobs and growing the economy, that's something they'll have to explain to the american people .

    >> i want to ask you about the fact that i've also been told that everything here will be paid for as far as everything you're going to be proposing. does that mean you're looking at taking sort of speeding up getting money out so maybe money that's been budgeted over ten years on infrastructure you want to spend in the next two? what do you mean by paid for if you're not going to be talking about tax increases?

    >> sure. we have been this engaged for too long in this town on-in a false debate. either you're deal with your deficits or creating jobs and the economy, not either/or. the president will talk about specific measures to create jobs and grow the economy and the fact that we can do significant deficit reduction beyond what the quote, unquote, super committee has been tasked with to pay for these measures. we can do that in a very easy way and a balanced approach.

    >> is this one of these plans you'll but up on your website? i notice you guys are launching a new thing on your website, we, the people, and in here, a david plouffe e-mail, video message this morning. it said if enough ideas get enough petition signatures, it means you will take up the idea. can you explain this a little bit? somebody comes up and says, hey, i want to get rid of the epa, and that gets enough signatures and enough requests, you guys will seriously consider figuring out how to get rid of the epa?

    >> well, i think that what we, the people, is designed to do is have greater engagement with the american people , to have them -- if there are new ideas that come through that process that are helpful in terms of creating jobs or growing the economy or helping middle-class families, they'll get a fair hearing inside the white house . if there are ideas that are ones that we fundamentally disagree with or are bad ideas and enough people come forward, we'll respond to why we disagree with that idea and look for a way to work together on other ideas.

    >> i want to close with politics, new quinnipiac poll out this morning, has to have you pulling your hair out a little bit. who can better handle the economy, your posz, president obama , or mitt romney . same question with your boss or rick perry . mitt romney outpolls your boss. why do you think that is?

    >> well, i think my guess is that a significant portion of the people polled, the american people , don't know what mitt romney 's economic plan is yet. i'm confident they will know. he supports cut, cap, and balance which would essentially end medicare, end social security , devastate --

    >> but you know the president's plan and they say -- what you're saying is they're taking none of the above over the president?

    >> no. what i think is always true before you get into a national contest of ideas in elections is the incumbent is judged not against his or her opponent but against the ideal. we're obviously in a tough economic situation right now. we've been in it for a long time. we've made some progress. we have a lot more to do. eventually there will be a republican, whether it's mitt romney or governor perry or congresswoman bachmann or something else sitting across the stage from the president and we'll debate, who has a better vision on how to move the economy forward. what we know is every idea being advanced by every republican candidate has been tried before and failed. we'll have a debate. that debate is a long time from now. we have a speech next week that is about how we can create jobs and grow the economy now.

    >> do you believe that you guys could have handled this request to speaker boehner better?

    >> well, look, i mean, the whole thing is silly. it's fitting within the last day of august sort of washington, d.c., august, obsession. we'll always look at this and figure out how to do things better. but right now we're focused on the speech next week and the president's plan to grow the economy and create jobs.

    >> dan pfeiffer, white house communications director , thanks very much for cominging on.

    >> thank you, chuck.


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