David Catanese and Alex Isenstadt
Despite President Barack Obama’s sagging poll ratings, top Democratic leaders from around the country insist they’d love for him to visit. From state party chairmen to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the message remains remarkably consistent: No one views the president as a political liability.
Roughly a year out from the 2012 presidential election, that may be true. But already, as Obama’s most recent forays into battleground states indicate, there are growing signs that many Democratic politicians don’t want to get too close to him, either.
In trips to Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania — all states that he carried in 2008 — members of Congress were notably missing from the president’s side. Though none came out and said they were deliberately avoiding him, they didn’t have to: Dodging a presidential candidate who’s riding low in the polls is a time-honored political practice.
The past three elections — the Sept. 13 House special elections in New York and Nevada and the Oct. 4 West Virginia gubernatorial special election — haven’t done much to inspire confidence about Obama’s ability to help the entire ticket: The president was unquestionably an anchor on the Democratic nominees in each race.
For Obama, who has led a charmed political life since bursting onto the national stage in 2004 — he was in high demand on the campaign trail even before he won his Senate seat that year — it’s a harbinger of a humbling election year to come.
In North Carolina, only Sen. Kay Hagan, who isn’t up for reelection until 2014, and veteran Rep. Mel Watt, who represents a majority black district, appeared with the president. The state’s six other Democratic House members took a pass, offering a variety of excuses.
“[Obama] may end up being Walter Mondale of 1984,” said Raleigh-based Democratic strategist Brad Crone, recalling that the only elected official who risked being seen with the party’s nominee that year was the longtime agriculture commissioner.
When Obama visited Pittsburgh, Pa., two weeks ago, the story was much the same — no members of Congress to be found. Though two of southwestern Pennsylvania’s three Democratic congressmen greeted the president on the airport tarmac, neither of them attended any of the public events Obama held, choosing instead to return to Washington.
“Southwest Pennsylvania has become over time a difficult place for Democrats because of the perception they are left of center,” said T.J. Rooney, a former Pennsylvania Democratic Party chairman and state legislator.
Some Democrats believe that attempts to keep a distance from the president can only backfire. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell called it “political idiocy” for Democrats to purposefully avoid a president from their own party.
“A lot of members of Congress are complete wusses. It’s absurd to think if you show up with the president, you’re doing yourself some damage. Do these members think for a minute voters are going to forget they are Democrats? I think they think, ‘Boy, that guy’s a wuss or a weenie, running from the president,’” said Rendell.
Other Democrats insist that nothing’s changed for Obama, that even notoriously risk-averse politicians will embrace his appearances when he arrives in their states.
“When President Obama comes to Arizona, he is going to be welcomed with open arms. I don’t think you’ll see people shying away. We’re going to be excited,” said Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Andrei Cherny.
“People still like him personally. The more visits, the merrier. Come on back,” added Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern.
Pelosi echoed those sentiments recently, asserting that any one of her House Democrats “would love to have the president as a guest in our districts.”
Perhaps, but when Obama recently visited Detroit — a city he won in 2008 with 74 percent of the vote —not a single member of the state’s congressional delegation showed up. The absences in part reflected ongoing unease over the president’s push for expanded free trade in a state with a strong organized labor presence.
“You’ve got 15 members from Michigan and everyone has a different reason,” for not attending, veteran Democratic Rep. John Dingell told POLITICO. “My reason was, I had different things to do.”
Dingell, who voted against a recent free trade bill, noted that he appeared with the president during a Labor Day event in Michigan and said he would be happy to campaign with Obama before the election.
Politicians like Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, who’s facing a difficult reelection bid in a state in which Obama is struggling in the polls, say they are destined to catch flak whether they embrace the president or not.
When Obama carried his jobs pitch to St. Louis earlier this month, McCaskill remained in Washington, explaining on Twitter that she would’ve been criticized for “hobnobbing with big donors” if she flew back to her home state to appear with the president. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is eager to tie vulnerable incumbents to the president, pounced — the NRSC released a video of McCaskill walking into an evening fundraiser in D.C. that very night, in an attempt to prove the first-term senator was, in fact, dodging an appearance with Obama.
Former Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Craig Hosmer said he thinks it would be foolish for McCaskill to deliberately distance herself from the president going forward.
“It gives even your supporters pause, they start questioning whether you are not strong enough to be your own person. I think it could backfire and make you look weaker,” said Hosmer. “If there’s damage done for 2012, it’s done, especially for Claire McCaskill. If the vote comes down to who was for Obama and who was against him, she’s going to lose.”
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