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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.

Durbin, who was scheduled to appear Sunday on “Meet the Press” to discuss 2012 politics, has been a top ally of Obama since the two served as Illinois’ Senators. And Schumer has been the party’s top Congressional messaging lieutenant since Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) gave him the keys to the Democrats’ war room after losing their near-super majority in 2010.

Though many believe these top Democrats will be effective in their defense of Obama, other sources were skeptical of the job the administration has done in fostering surrogates and letting their friends on Capitol Hill help them.

“Frankly, I actually think that this is less an issue for the campaign and more a failure in the first three years, and the fact that they never rolled out an effective economic surrogate was a huge failure for them,” said one Democratic strategist, who emphasized he did not feel that a large crop of Congressional surrogates is as important this cycle from a message perspective. “It’s important in that it’s a tool to take things off their plate and increase their bandwidth.”

Congressional Democrats last summer felt isolated by the White House, which had begun its campaign against a dysfunctional Congress without distinguishing between Democrats and Republicans. Late last September, for instance, Obama did an event in Ohio and Brown did not know about it until the media reported the story.

“They could do better when they come to Ohio — I don’t want to sound whiny about this, so I’m reluctant to say much here, but I can help them with location and setup and all that,” Brown said at the time. “I wish they consulted us more, but that’s not how they run the White House.”

But the campaign is trying to do better. Senate Democratic sources indicated that Obama for America has given advance notice on a series of events it will do this week on the “Buffett Rule,” affording Members the opportunity to contact their staffers and get their names on the events. They think it could be a win-win for everyone involved: The national media covers the president, while local media covers state-based lawmakers, expanding their field of coverage.

Other Senate aides pointed to the Democratic retreat earlier this year when campaign manager Jim Messina made a presentation to Senators at Nationals Park and gave a detailed overview of how Members could plug into surrogate activities.

Campaign and Congressional sources, however, noted that it’s still early for surrogate season to be in full gear. Summer is typically when campaign advocates increase their workload, and these sources expect a more serious push to come soon, especially as the GOP primary wraps up.

As for who might emerge as the next generation of fresher-faced surrogates for Obama, Senate Democratic leadership sources pointed to the efforts they are making on their own to get their Members on daytime cable news to talk about the issues of the day, most recently on women’s rights. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) was cited by multiple sources as someone who has gotten more airtime and could transition into an effective speaking role for the campaign.

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