Second-Guessing Inside White House After Rough Summer

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The summer is essentially over, and the Obama White House probably couldn’t be happier after dealing with one crisis after another. Ukraine. ISIS. The VA. Ferguson. But the chief result of this tough summer -- which has sent President Obama’s approval ratings to the low 40s (and maybe even lower) -- is a White House that’s second-guessing itself. It’s divided over using military force in Syria to combat ISIS. It’s conflicted over whether to announce executive action on immigration before or after the midterms (Obama last week seemed to signal that he would be punting). And it’s unsure where and how to campaign in the fall midterms. This kind of second-guessing always happens when the goings get tough. But it’s never helpful when all this is happening 63 days -- or 9 weeks -- before a big Election Day. Obama seems to be keeping his own counsel more than ever. That is frustrating a lot of longtime aides who worry he is more in a bubble. And the nervousness among the outside advisers is contributing to the uncertainty inside the West Wing.

But it hasn’t resulted in the GOP having the clear advantage this midterm season

Despite all the problems at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, however, here’s an important thing to remember: Republicans aren’t necessarily pulling away in the top Senate races, at least right now. “Republicans are poised to pick up seats in the Senate as congressional campaigns head into the home stretch, but Democrats are strongly defending a half-dozen states that will determine whether the GOP wrests control of the chamber or settles for another session of a divided Congress,” the Washington Times writes. “Despite a highly touted class of challengers … Republicans have struggled in a number of other conservative states, leaving the fate of the Senate to be fought out over the next two months in North Carolina, Louisiana, Alaska and Arkansas, as well as in several progressive states.” And it’s not just in the Senate races. Here’s Politico on House Republicans possibly underperforming in this environment. “Tepid fundraising, underperforming candidates and a lousy party brand are threatening to deprive House Republicans of the sweeping 2014 gains that some top party officials have been predicting this year.”

“Keeping the Bums In”

And here’s one more important midterm story to read: It’s looking quite likely that an angry American electorate is poised to “Keep The Bums In.” The AP: “A surly electorate that holds Congress in even lower regard than unpopular President Barack Obama is willing to ‘keep the bums in,’ with at least 365 incumbents in the 435-member House and 18 of 28 senators on a glide path to another term when ballots are counted Nov. 4... The voter disgust is palpable, evident in blistering comments at summertime town halls and middling percentages for incumbents in primaries. Yet no sitting senator has lost and only three congressmen got the primary boot. Come Election Day, only a fraction of the electorate will be motivated enough to vote - if history is any guide.”

Two ways of looking at Obama’s foreign-policy challenges

Today, President Obama heads overseas for a weeklong trip -- first to Estonia and then to the NATO summit in Wales, Great Britain. And the backdrop, of course, is the conflict and Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine. “NATO leaders meeting in Wales this week were expected to endorse their most concrete response yet to increased Russian military intervention in Ukraine: establishing a rapid-reaction force capable of deploying quickly to Eastern Europe,” the New York Times says. There are two ways to look at all the foreign-policy challenges hitting the Obama administration. The first -- epitomized today by National Journal’s Ron Fournier -- is that Obama has dithered. Fournier’s headline: “Hawkish or weakish? Americans don’t like either in a president.” The other way, via the Century Foundation’s Michael Cohen in a New York Daily News op-ed, is that the stakes and threats to the United States are exaggerated. “Certainly, Russia seizing Crimea is bad for Ukraine, and it's a troubling violation of the global norm against cross-border attacks. But it has little to no effect on U.S. security... The rise of ISIS is terrifying, but far more for the people of Iraq and Syria than for Americans. It's true, albeit a minute possibility, that ISIS could establish a safe haven in the territory they hold, train some terrorists and send them to attack the United States. But it's hard to be concerned over such a remote event, especially when Americans face serious actual challenges at home.”

Obama stumps on raising the minimum wage

Obama spent his Labor Day in Milwaukee, and he focused on an issue he hasn’t discussed in depth in a LONG time -- raising the minimum wage. “There is no denying a simple truth: America deserves a raise,” he said. “Folks are doing very well on Wall Street, they’re doing very well in the corporate board rooms -- give America a raise.” Of course, the reason why Obama hasn’t focused on the minimum wage (or any economic issue) in depth for a long time has been because all of the other issues that dominated the summer.

Cantor joins Wall Street firm

If you placed a wager that former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who stunningly lost his primary last June, would work on Wall Street rather than become a lobbyist, well, you won your bet. The Wall Street Journal with the scoop: “Eric Cantor plans to join boutique investment bank Moelis & Co., as the recently defeated House majority leader embarks on a new career on Wall Street. Mr. Cantor, 51 years old, will be a vice chairman and board member at the firm, effective this week, he and Moelis founder Ken Moelis said in a joint interview on Monday.” It’s never surprising to see ex-members cash out on Wall Street or K Street. But Cantor’s move will only stoke the Tea Party critique that GOP leaders have their eyes on Wall Street, not Main Street. Maybe the only surprising thing is that this move was announced before the year ended -- rather than afterward.

McConnell’s campaign manager steps down

The long Labor Day weekend started off with this story out of Kentucky: “Jesse Benton resigned as Sen. Mitch McConnell's campaign manager Friday following reports that he had emerged as a figure in an endorsement scandal during the 2012 Iowa presidential caucus,” the Louisville Courier-Journal reported. “In an emailed statement Friday evening, Benton denied any involvement in the scandal, in which Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson admitted receiving payments from U.S. Rep. Ron Paul's campaign before switching his endorsement to the congressman. He had previously backed U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.” We don’t believe this will necessarily hurt McConnell -- after all, Benton was hired to get the Senate minority leader through his primary campaign. But the story COULD end up hurting Rand Paul next year.

Christie brushes up on his foreign policy

Meanwhile, the New York Times focuses on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s education on foreign policy -- as he heads to Mexico for a business trip there. “This summer, Mr. Christie finished ‘Reagan at Reykjavik,’ Ken Adelman’s history of the pivotal 1986 Cold War summit meeting. He has struck up a friendship with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, now an informal foreign policy tutor; is known to consult with former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger on major speeches that touch on world affairs; and is in contact with trusted Republican hands like Robert B. Zoellick, a career diplomat and former head of the World Bank.” One takeaway here is that Christie is leaning into the Bush World for his foreign-policy advice. While Obama's handling of foreign policy is in the tank, it is not like the country is yearning for the Bush era interventionism either. Christie could actually be inviting more trouble. The other takeaway is that all of this talk and travel is an attempt to revive the presidential chatter around him -- at a time when his presidential prospects look pretty weak.

First Read’s Race of the Day: CA-31

Democrat Pete Aguilar scraped into this general election contest, barely clinging to second place in the state’s jungle primary in June. His performance meant Democrats avoided a replay of their 2012 disaster, when the party failed to win either of the top two spots despite this San Bernardino district’s Obama-friendly electorate. In the wake of the retirement of GOP Rep. Gary Miller, Aguilar, the mayor of Redlands, looks like a favorite against Paul Chabot, a businessman whom Democrats hope to paint as a Tea Party extremist.

TV ads to watch

During the long Labor Day Weekend, Mark Begich (D) launched a controversial TV ad hitting opponent Dan Sullivan (R). The Alaska Dispatch News: “Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan is demanding that Democratic incumbent Mark Begich remove a hard-hitting TV ad that Sullivan calls ‘shameful and deceitful.’ But the Begich campaign isn’t budging. It says Sullivan is to blame for a light sentence given to a sex offender who, shortly after he left prison, was charged with killing a couple and sexually assaulting their toddler granddaughter and an elderly woman.” Begich has run a VERY aggressive re-election campaign. But is the TV ad TOO aggressive? It appears Sullivan wasn't really to blame on this -- technically factual but very misleading. Welcome to TV advertising in the 21st Century. No media consultant ever asks "is this fair?" Instead: "Is this defensible?" so notes PAUL Waldman in a recent column. This is Exhibit A.

Countdown to Election Day: 63 days

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