President Obama's influence on the campaign trail seems to be shrinking. He has stumped for Democratic candidates in the four major races over the past few months, only to have his choices lose in Massachusetts, Virginia, New Jersey, and, most recently with Sen. Arlen Specter, in Pennsylvania. In the May special House election in Pennsylvania, Democrat Mark Critz won, but only after he campaigned against Obama's agenda and billed himself as a pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-Obamacare outsider. It appears that voters have turned off the president's megaphone, or they just aren't paying much attention to it any more.
Appearing in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Obama tried to frame the fall campaign by portraying Republicans as naysayers who have opposed many of his key initiatives, including tax cuts for small businesses, tax credits for college tuition, and new spending for clean energy. "We already know where their ideas led us," the president said. "And now we have a choice as a nation. We can return to the failed economic policies of the past, or we can keep building a stronger future."
But Obama seems powerless to alter the fundamental political dynamic heading into the fall's elections: Congressional incumbents, most of them Democrats, are in trouble, and getting rid of them seems to be a primary objective of the voters. "Americans are hitting the delete button," says Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan.
Given a choice among nonincumbents, voters so far have tended to prefer the candidate who is most stridently anti-Washington, such as Rand Paul, the new Republican nominee for the Senate from Kentucky who got a big boost from the angry, anti-Washington movement known as the Tea Party. Paul has made some major gaffes of late, such as over his views on aspects of civil rights laws, but they haven't reduced the power of the anti-status-quo tide that propelled him to the nomination.
Which brings us back to Obama. Some of his policies are very unpopular or polarizing, such as his new healthcare law and the vast federal spending and industry bailouts undertaken in response to the most serious economic recession in decades. But White House officials argue that Obama will remain an important force in this fall's campaigns, and not only because he can draw huge sums of money for his favored candidates (he raised $1.7 million for Sen. Barbara Boxer and the Democratic Party on a May trip to California). White House strategists argue that Obama also will use his eloquence over the next few months to turn around public opinion.
But many are skeptical. "The White House has totally misread this," says Matthew Dowd, who was George W. Bush's pollster and a chief strategist in Bush's two successful presidential campaigns. The central fact about "the Obama effect" in politics today is that he has no effect, Dowd says; one election after another has provided "another piece of evidence that Barack Obama doesn't matter."
The impact might be more immediate than White House officials think. If Democrats in Congress don't believe that supporting Obama will help them this fall, they will be more tempted to oppose him on matters already in the pipeline, such as energy legislation and immigration proposals.
"Obama needs to decide if he is the leader of the country or the leader of a party," says Dowd. "He needs to go back to being the leader of the country" because that's why Americans voted for him in 2008. To that end, Dowd says, Obama should occasionally fight liberal Democratic leaders in Congress on important policy questions. "This is a change election," Dowd says. "People don't want what's going on in Washington any more." And the president, who billed himself as the agent of change in the 2008 campaign, now comes across as a representative of the status quo.
Of course, the anti-incumbent mood in the electorate could also bite Republican incumbents. Pollsters say there's not much sentiment for the GOP over the Democrats, but mostly resentment toward both political parties. The country keeps sending wake-up calls that it wants an end to business as usual—the hyperpartisanship, the overspending, the corruption—but the message seems to be ignored, breeding more anger. This will give authentic independents and anti-Washington insurgents a huge opportunity, regardless of the Obama factor.