With a year left before the 2016 presidential election, don’t expect President Obama to tackle ‘big’ issues while he focuses on raising millions of dollars for Democrats and brags about his accomplishments.
BY JOHN T. BENNETT
CQ-ROLL CALL / TNS
WASHINGTON – The White House and parts of the Democratic campaign machine envision President 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 that 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.
Won’t ‘do deals’
“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.
Making Dems’ case
“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.”
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.”
Approval ratings matter
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.
Targeting Dems’ base
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.”
‘Ally of the Year’
Demonstrating his appeal to a key Democratic base, Obama is the first sitting president to sit for a portrait by a lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered magazine, according to the editors of Out magazine. Out describes itself as “the world’s leading gay fashion and lifestyle brand,” and is featuring the nation’s 44th chief executive as Ally of the Year.
The cover of the 2015 Out100 issue features a black-and-white close-up of the president looking straight into the camera with a Mona Lisa almost-smile. Ryan Pfluger photographed him.
Out editors said their selection of Obama for the cover represents “a statement on how much his administration has done to advance a singularly volatile issue that tarnished the reputations of both President Clinton and President Bush.”
‘A nationwide right’
In an interview with Out reporter Aaron Hicklin, Obama reflected on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, saying that the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges had not come as a surprise to him, considering the “remarkable attitude shift – in hearts and minds – across America.”
Hicklin wrote, “When he was sworn in on January 20, 2009, there were two states where same-sex marriage was legal. Today it is a right nationwide. Many share credit for what has transpired, but there’s no question that without the active engagement of the 44th president of the United States, who has made securing the rights of LGBT Americans a fundamental part of his legacy, we’d still be working to fulfill that dream.”
•When Obama entered office in 2009, he reiterated his belief that the institution of marriage was reserved for partnerships of one man and one woman, but the following year, he signed a bill dropping the legal ban on openly gay people serving in the military.
•In 2011, Obama announced that his administration no longer would defend in court a law signed by President Bill Clinton that defined marriage as between one man and one woman.
•In his 2013 inaugural address, Obama made history by becoming the first president to endorse gay rights in such a high-profile speech. “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” the president declared.
•In September, Obama nominated Eric Fanning to be secretary of the Army – who, if confirmed by the Senate, would be the first openly gay head of a military branch.
Emily Greenhouse of Bloomberg News / TNS contributed to this report.