Democratic candidates and strategists have spent the entire year trying to figure out how to make the midterm into anything other than a referendum on President Obama.
Indeed, Democratic Party Chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, said back in May that the 2014 elections are “absolutely not” a referendum on President Barack Obama’s policies.
“These elections, particularly the Senate elections, are referendums on the candidates running,” Wasserman Schultz told NBC News. “They have to talk about and focus on the issues that are important to their constituents.”
The strategy has often led to some unintentionally hilarious results. An ad by Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes shows her shooting a shotgun and saying “I’m not Barack Obama.” Alaska Democrat Mark Begich has an ad with him in a snowmobile bouncing over icy terrain talking about how “he took on Obama to get drilling in the Arctic.” And Sen. Mary Landrieu, in an effort to win over young voters, helped a Louisiana college student do a keg stand outside of an LSU game.
Subtlety is not their strong suit.
The reason for that approach was simple: President Obama’s approval ratings were in the tank (they’ve only gotten worse) and his policies—namely, Obamacare—were unpopular (their poll numbers have since fallen further). To the extent that the fate of Senate candidates was tied to the prevailing national political mood, Democrats’ hopes appeared dim.
Democrats’ attempt to distance themselves from an unpopular president appeared wise, especially given the challenging playing field they were faced with. Of the seven seats that are currently viewed as “toss ups” – many of which Democrats will have to win if they hope to retain their Senate majority – President Obama lost four of them in 2012. In addition, he also lost to Romney in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, states with open-seats that were previously held by Democrats.
But in a speech yesterday President Obama took the strategy currently being employed by red state Democrats across the country, crumpled it up, and tossed it in the trashcan.
“I am not on the ballot this fall. Michelle’s pretty happy about that. But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them,” Obama said to students at Northwestern University.
“This isn’t a political speech, and I’m not going to tell you who to vote for,” he added. Although I suppose it is kind of implied.”
His wife may be happy the president is not on the ballot, but Democrats were thrilled. Unfortunately, thanks to President Obama’s comments they now have little choice but to own the fact that they are inextricably linked to him. Here’s the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza explaining the collective groan coming from Democratic candidates election headquarters across the country:
You can imagine Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas or Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina or Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky grimacing when they heard those 28 words. That trio has spent much of the campaign insisting that this election is NOT about Barack Obama, that it is instead about a choice between themselves and their opponents. . .
It doesn’t take a political mastermind to realize that an ad in which the President of the United States says “Make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them” might not be helpful to the Democratic candidates trying to run away from him this November.
After yesterday it’s clear that Obama simply doesn’t understand the depth of voters’ disapproval of the job he’s done. But given the hubris we’ve seen on display from this White House over the past six years is it really all that surprising?