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Obama trying to boost party money, morale

President Barack Obama, the leader who prods his critics to put politics aside, is doing anything but these days as he sets out to campaign for his party's future.
Image: U.S. President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks during a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in New York City on Tuesday.Jason Reed / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Barack Obama, the leader who prods his critics to put politics aside, is doing anything but these days as he sets out to campaign for his party's future.

Barreling Tuesday into several days of frenetic political activity, Obama The Campaigner has work to do in helping raise money and rally loyalists for lesser-known Democrats.

Dollars aren't materializing as much as expected — even with a record-shattering fundraiser like Obama at the party's helm and working furiously to bring in cash. And, two weeks before off-year elections, Democrats are facing the prospect of losing hard-fought gubernatorial races in Virginia and perhaps New Jersey, contests that depend on the Democratic base and that to a certain degree are shaping up as a test of Obama's political strength.

All that's a wake-up call for a party that controls both the White House and Congress and for a president elected in an electoral landslide less than a year ago.

So, as the Democratic standard-bearer, Obama is putting his time on the line and his prestige to the test with a blitz of fundraisers and campaign appearances.

‘It now falls on to us’
He is asking donors not just for money, but also a burst of campaign energy to help him get his enormous domestic agenda passed, particularly health care reform. He does knowing it is harder to get people jazzed up to lobby Congress than to win an groundbreaking election.

"It now falls to us," Obama told donors at a $30,000-per-couple fundraiser on Tuesday. "I hope that everybody here is willing to recapture that sense of excitement that comes from a big but achievable challenge, not a superficial excitement that comes from election day, but an excitement that comes from knowing we took on something that had to be taken on."

At a second fundraiser focused on health care, Obama boasted of his first-year accomplishments, telling donors who paid $100 to $1,000 to attend that 'we've already had one of the most productive first years of any administration in decades."

"I'm just getting started," he said.

Obama stood to raise as much as $3 million in New York for the Democratic National Committee on Tuesday as well as an unspecified sum for Bill Owens, the Democrat in a special congressional election in upstate New York. He paired an official White House event — a visit to a joint terrorism task force center — with the fundraising trip, meaning a reduced cost of presidential travel for the campaigns while taxpayers pick up the rest of the tab.

In the coming days, the president also will campaign for Democrats in New Jersey, Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida, a notable cashing-in of Obama's time as he fights to pass health care reform and tries to find a winning Afghanistan strategy.

It's not just this year's races that are at issue but also the broader state of the Democratic Party — from cash-flow to enthusiasm — heading into next year. In the 2010 elections, Democrats will try to defend their majorities in Congress and seek to pick up governor's seats.

The party in power typically loses congressional seats in the first election of a president's term. Obama certainly wants to avoid the fate of Bill Clinton, who similarly swept into office with youthful energy only to see his party lose control of Congress two years later.

With all that at stake, Obama is choosing to insert himself intensely into the process while keeping in mind that he also could be associated with defeats should Democrats lose.

Headliner at 23 fundraisers
Including Tuesday's events, Obama will have headlined 23 fundraisers so far in his nine-month presidency, according to Mark Knoller of CBS News, who keeps a detailed log of presidential activities. This compares with six for President George W. Bush's first year in office, though his efforts were cut short because of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Obama is calculating that he can't afford criticism from the Democratic Party's base supporters that he's not helping candidates. But there are also risks to full-throttle campaigning: His own power is being gauged.

"If governors and members of the House and Senate come to the conclusion that Obama's personal support is not transferable or that his supporters have not remained mobilized, the impact of his personal charisma will be seen as more limited than it was a year ago," said Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College in New York.

"All in all, he gets more credit for making a public effort than for sitting on the sidelines and watching Democrats at risk fend for themselves," Sherrill said.

Overall, Democrats aren't in terrible financial shape. 

Though September, the committee that works to elect Senate Democrats brought in $33 million compared with $29 million for its Republican counterparts, and the committee that works to elect House Democrats has raised $44 million compared with $27 million for the countering Republican effort. Also the Democratic and Republican committees that work to elect governors were almost even in fundraising during the first half of this year.

But Democrats certainly aren't seeing the jaw-dropping sums of the 2008 presidential campaign year. And some Republican candidates are out-raising Democratic opponents in the money hunt in key 2010 races.

In Illinois, Republican Mark Kirk out-raised Democrat Alex Giannoulias last quarter and is keeping pace overall in the race for Obama's old Senate seat. In two states where Democrats hope to pick up Senate seats open because of Republican retirements, Republicans Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio vastly outraised Democrat Kendrick Meek in Florida in the past quarter, and Republican Rob Portman is swamping Democrat Lee Fisher both this past quarter and overall.

In the House, several dozen Republican challengers in Democratic-held districts have raised more than $100,000 through September, an increase from June when that was true of just over a dozen such Republican candidates. And as of June, the Republican governors had $20 million cash on hand, compared with only $12 million for Democratic governors.

Another concern for Democrats
Also causing concern for Democrats: The DNC hasn't raised as much as party operatives thought it would and the Republican National Committee under Chairman Michael Steele has exceeded Democratic expectations. The DNC has raised nearly $55 million, including $8.2 million last month, through September, compared with $59 million, including $8.7 million last month, for the RNC.

Democrats are being hampered by a host of factors, including the recession.

Obama also extended his ban on money from political action committees and lobbyists to the DNC, deep-pocketed Wall Street donors aren't ponying up as much as expected, and grass-roots supporters who were the bedrock of last year's campaign aren't as energized as they were when there was a clear objective — taking the White House from Republicans by electing Obama.

"It's hard to raise money if you're in power. The ideological giver or party giver may be thinking, 'Didn't we just win this election?'" said Clyde Wilcox, a Georgetown University government professor who has studied giving to parties and candidates. "Also, Bush is gone, and a lot of the Democrats were motivated by anti-Bush feelings in previous cycles."