In a January strategy session with a handful of endangered incumbents, President Obama took exception to the notion that brewing public opposition to his party's landmark legislative victories somehow portended massive Democratic losses this fall. Republican-fomented speculation that the 2010 midterm election would mirror the 1994 midterm elections, which famously robbed President Bill Clinton of his majority in the House of Representatives, the president insisted, was greatly overblown.
And unlike sixteen years before, the president told his concerned colleagues the "big difference" would be "me." The problem for Democratic candidates, according to a new Gallup survey, is that their base prefers the man who presided over the last great Democratic electoral loss than the man likely to preside over the next.
Fifty-three percent of Democratic voters say they would be more inclined to vote for a given candidate if the former President Clinton campaigned on that candidate's behalf, whereas only 48 percent said the same of President Obama. Among Independents and Republicans, the margin between the two grew even wider.
That dynamic--whereby Democratic candidates are forced to weigh the extent to which Obama can motivate base voters against the possibility he might adversely affect their relationships with independents--has manifested itself nowhere more clearly than in the two presidents' campaign schedules.
Mr. Clinton, already ten years into his retirement, has completed nearly 100 campaign events for Democratic candidates this cycle. Unfortunately for Mr. Obama's famed ego, enthusiasm for his presence on the trail is decidedly less.
For months now, the Obama White House has insisted the 2010 midterm elections would bear little resemblance to the 1994 elections and that Democrats would retain their majorities in the House and Senate. But counterintuitive as it may seem, Democrats outside the Beltway are praying for a near reprise of 1994 -- fearing, as polls indicate, the 2010 season will instead be even worse.
Those presidents whose job approval registers sub-50 in election season rating indexes have lost an average of 36 House seats.
On the eve of the 1994 midterm elections, 48 percent of Americans approved of Clinton's job performance. His party bore the brunt of that unpopularity, losing 54 House seats that November.
In October 2006, while the nation was prosecuting two costly wars and slogging through a depressed economy, former President George W. Bush held an approval rating of 44 percent. And that year the Republican Party suffered 30 House defeats.
In the succeeding months since Mr. Obama's Oval Office "you've got me" boast, the political environment has only become more hostile to the president. His job approval rating registers today at just 44.7 percentage points, for which election handicappers project Democrats might lose as many as 56 House seats. Republicans need only net 40 additional seats to wrest control of the House.
Whereas Clinton has made appearances in Kentucky, West Virginia, Nevada, Washington, California and Florida--all states featuring marquee Senate contests--Obama is visiting only those Blue states in which his presence won't jeopardize a candidate's November chances.
Most Democrats, when pressed, offer the obligatory, if unenthusiastic, invitation for the president to join them on the campaign trial.
But some candidates are so concerned with the optics--namely, implied reflexive partisan cooperation with an increasingly unpopular president--they won't say if they will invite Obama on the trail. Other Democrats still are heralding an anti-Obama message in the hopes that it might buoy them amid a conservative swing in the electorate.
Now, it seems when Democrats invoke Obama's name on the trail or in campaign advertisements, it has been only to condemn his budget-busting stimulus program or his overhaul of the nation's health care system.
Democratic advertising dollars on anti-health care spots this cycle outpaces money spent on pro-reform advertisements by a three-to-one margin. Democrats like Reps. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Glenn Nye and Baron Hill have spent upwards of $1 million deriding their party's feature legislative victory, while only the most confident Democrats have campaigned on the measure, spending little more than $300,000.
In at least a dozen instances, the election efforts of high-profile House and Senate Democratic candidates are at least in part predicated on a rejection of the president's administration and its increasingly unpopular domestic agenda.
Barack Obama is so manifestly unpopular that voters--and indeed candidates, at least the honest ones--overwhelmingly prefer as a surrogate a man whose presidential tenure was marred by philandering and impeachment proceedings. And despite holding a 23-point advantage last year, Obama is now tied in a measure of approval with a man virtually chased from the White House in 2008 by angry villagers.
If Democrats this year could have three wishes, the first, second and third would almost certainly be for Barack Obama to disappear and reappear as Bill Clinton. Or perhaps their third wish might be for Obama to reappear as Bush, under whom they performed quite well.
James Richardson is account services director at Hynes Communications. He served as online communications manager for the Republican National Committee in 2008. His clients include Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, as well as various corporate clients. He is also a contributing editor for RedState.com.