The state of the economy will play a critical role in the fall midterm elections – and in determining Mr. Obama's legacy when he leaves office three years from now.
But by going to North Carolina, the president also didn’t do any favors for the state’s Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the fall midterms. Senator Hagan skipped the event in Raleigh, citing her duties in Washington. Obama gave her a shoutout anyway; at least she avoided the photo op.
It’s only January, and the elections aren’t until November, but the strategizing is well under way as the Democrats fight to maintain their slim majority in the Senate – critical to Obama’s ability to wield power on Capitol Hill. Already, Obama has stepped up his fundraising for the party’s Senate campaign committee and boosted outreach to Hill Democrats by top aides.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Obama was to host the 55-member Senate Democratic caucus at the White House for the first time since October.
The purpose of the meeting is “to sync our watches on the policy agenda that the president has been putting forward and will add to in his State of the Union address” on Jan. 28, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One en route to Raleigh.
At stake in the November midterms is Obama’s final two years in office. Republican control of the House is seen as insurmountable, so the focus is on the Senate. And Democratic control of the 100-seat upper chamber is far from certain, with Republicans needing only a net gain of six seats to gain the majority.
“It would be a calamity, a political calamity” for Obama if Democrats lost the Senate, says political scientist Ross Baker of Rutgers University in New Jersey. “He would certainly get a lot of exercise of his left hand vetoing bills, but presidents don’t want to go down in history as having vetoed a lot of bills.”
As it is, Congress isn’t getting a whole lot done. Last year was one of its least productive years on record. But at least Obama’s not having to fend off legislation that is anathema to his agenda, such as efforts to gut or repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Losing the Senate would also cost Obama the ability to gain routine confirmation of executive and judicial nominees, a power that came when Democrats engineered a rule change last year to allow consideration of most nominations with a majority vote.
In the coming year, Obama and his team have foreshadowed heavy use of executive power to further his agenda. The arrival this month of power player John Podesta in the White House – a big believer in executive action – reinforces the plan. But executive power can only take a president so far. Passing a big program, such as immigration reform or a budget, requires Congress.
The White House denies that Obama has given up on working with Congress.
His move toward executive action “indicates that he will use every opportunity available to him to move the ball down the field with Congress,” Mr. Carney said Tuesday. “But he will not limit himself … just to what he can do legislatively with Congress, because as president, there is a lot more he can do.”
Still, given Obama’s slumping job approval ratings – now in the low 40s, after the disastrous rollout of Obamacare – what can the president do to help his fellow Democrats keep their jobs?
“His political advisers know exactly where he plays well and can help, and where he’s a burden,” says Mr. Baker. “People like Mary Landrieu and Kay Hagan and Mark Pryor and Mark Begich are on their own, and I think happy to be so.”
Senator Landrieu of Louisiana, Senator Pryor of Arkansas, and Senator Begich of Alaska are all Democrats, all representing Republican-leaning states, and all on the endangered list. In addition, seats held by retiring Democrats in South Dakota, Montana, West Virginia, all red states, are even more vulnerable to a Republican takeover.
In short, the Republicans have more than enough opportunities to retake the Senate, as long as they don’t lose any of their own seats. The party is working hard to make sure its candidates don’t squander opportunities with ill-considered comments, such as those on rape in the last cycle.
For the Democrats, Obama’s biggest contribution will be his fundraising heft. In 2012, the Obama campaign focused on raising money for itself, not the House and Senate campaign committees. But last year, the president did 27 events for the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, according to Politico. First lady Michelle Obama is also on the fundraising circuit.
Aside from raking in cash, the best the president can do in his quest to keep the Senate is preside over a strengthening economy and job creation – and get the Obamacare albatross off vulnerable senators’ necks. The ACA remains unpopular, even as website performance and enrollment data improve.
At North Carolina State University on Wednesday, Obama announced the first of three “manufacturing institutes” – consortia of universities and companies aimed at developing next-generation technology for manufacturers. The announcement fulfilled a pledge from his 2013 State of the Union address, two weeks before this year’s speech.
The manufacturing initiative also demonstrated the president’s ability work around Congress. Originally, the plan was to set up 15 institutes. But funding would have required congressional authorization. So he scaled back to three institutes, and financed it with a grant from the Energy Department.