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Barack Obama Needs a Few Good Surrogates

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Sen. Claire McCaskill was a prominent surrogate for President Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign, but this year she will be occupied with her own re-election efforts.

With the general election just beginning to heat up and a seemingly insatiable news cycle to match, a question is emerging from Washington: Who in Congress will be the “Obama talkers?”

Every campaign has its army of surrogates, and President Barack Obama’s 2008 bid to claim the White House had no shortage of them. From an energized class of Senate Democrats elected in 2006, spearheaded by then-national campaign co-chairwoman Sen. Claire McCaskill
(D-Mo.), to a crop of eager House Democrats, TV airwaves were packed with friends of Obama.

But a lot has changed since 2008. The relationship between the White House and Congressional Democrats, especially after midterm losses in 2010, has sometimes been icy. The narrative for Obama’s national campaign has shifted from the lofty ideals of change to a more tailored, pragmatic attack on a “do-nothing” Congress, obstructionist Republicans and income
inequality. Meanwhile, the prominent Members of that class of rising stars within the Senate Democratic Conference — including Sens. Bob Casey (Pa.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and McCaskill — are now facing their own tough re-election battles.

“The difference is that these guys are now running for their own re-election campaigns, and it is a challenge to get surrogates for anything [for the president] because a lot of the Democratic caucus is up running for re-election,” one Senate Democratic operative said. “Casey, Brown, McCaskill, these candidates are focused strongly on their race.”

In 2008, for example, McCaskill appeared on Sunday morning talk shows more than almost any other lawmaker. The Missouri Democrat made 12 Sunday appearances that year, with only Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), then the GOP presidential nominee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) landing on those coveted broadcasts more frequently, according to data compiled by Roll Call.

At the time, the new class of Senators was still fresh-faced and Members could present themselves as outside the Washington establishment. They had taken back the Senate on the same platform of bettering Washington that Obama amplified to immense success in 2008. In essence, they were the best choices to fulfill the role of campaign surrogates, the people who work to validate a candidate and his message, especially if he is unknown to constituencies the campaign is trying to secure.

Now, the game has necessarily changed. Americans know Obama and generally like him as a person. The most recent Real Clear Politics average for the month of March indicates more than
50 percent of Americans view the president favorably. What needs to be validated is not Obama himself, but his record as president.

For role of chief defenders, Democratic sources expect veteran lawmakers in leadership such as Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) to emerge as key messengers for Obama.

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