Obama Set to Spend Capital

Success Will Affect Margins on Hill

Posted January 16, 2009 at 6:14pm

Not only does Barack Obama take over today as the nation’s commander in chief, but he also becomes the recruiter in chief, fundraiser in chief and campaigner in chief for Congressional Democrats.

Democrats’ success at the polls in 2010 will be closely tied to the success of Obama’s first two years in the White House. But even though good policies often translate into good politics, the Democrats’ Congressional campaign strategists will be looking to the new president for all kinds of help in the months ahead.

“The main thing that will drive our fortunes two years from now is how we govern, but we also want to engage all the assets that Obama brings to the White House,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said.

As if to underscore how closely Congressional Democrats want to work with Obama, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Friday issued a video ad featuring all seven new Democratic Senators talking about their desire to achieve the change that Obama campaigned for.

“After our swearing-in ceremony, we are honored to begin our work with President-elect Barack Obama,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) says in the ad.

Obama and his top advisers have not revealed much about how they plan to operate politically now that he’s president. Obama’s transition office did not respond to requests for comment late last week.

But some of the new president’s early moves have demonstrated that politics will not be too far from his mind. He is bringing David Axelrod, his top campaign strategist, to the White House with him. And his chief of staff is ex-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the Chicago political brawler who engineered the Democratic takeover of the House in 2006. Among the Capitol Hill veterans serving in Obama’s legislative affairs office will be Jim Papa, who has worked in the House and Senate and has close ties to Emanuel and the DCCC.

What’s more, the Obama political team possesses a list of 12 million donors and supporters that it plans to utilize at the grass-roots level to push for his legislative agenda and, presumably, support favored candidates and causes. That grass-roots effort is expected to be led by David Plouffe, the manager of Obama’s presidential campaign and a former executive director of the DCCC.

“I think that is the strongest political capital that I have ever seen in politics,” said Peter Hart, the veteran Democratic pollster.

Obama has already shown his willingness to help Congressional Democrats at the financial level, cutting the DCCC at $3.5 million in excess campaign funds since the election.

“All three [Democratic campaign] committees, one of which he controlled, two of which he didn’t, took on extreme amounts of debt [in 2008], and they did that with the expectation that he was going to win and that he would take the responsibility for debt retirement,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “That’s probably the first step he’s going to take on the political front.”

It is impossible, at the early stage of any election cycle, to predict what the political dynamic will be come Election Day — how popular a president will be, and whether candidates for Congress and other offices will want to embrace the White House or keep their distance.

Democrats are hoping Obama’s poll numbers remain as sky-high as they are now, and in some districts last November he clearly had coattails. Hart predicted that Obama, given the scope of problems he is inheriting, the historical nature of his presidency and his own personality and ability to attract goodwill from voters, will enjoy a longer honeymoon than most of his recent predecessors.

Republican Congressional operatives, meanwhile, are already at work trying to draw distinctions between Obama and the Democratic-led Congress, which continues to fare poorly in public opinion surveys.

“It’s a fine line, but I think it can work,” said one senior GOP Hill aide. “For us, the enemies are the Pelosi Democrats, the [Charlie] Rangels. I wouldn’t expect a lot of anti-Obama messaging coming out of here.”

Without question, the White House and its political apparatus can be tremendously helpful to Congressional candidates. That was particularly evident in the 2002 cycle, when President George W. Bush actively recruited top-tier candidates, raised money for them aggressively, and hit the hustings nonstop in the final weeks of the campaign season.

It helped Republicans everywhere that Bush’s popularity, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and in the runup to the Iraq War, was so high. The GOP defied history in 2002 by picking up House and Senate seats — just the second time since the Civil War that a new president’s party made Congressional gains in the first round of midterm elections.

Blaise Hazelwood, who was political director at the Republican National Committee during the 2002 cycle, recalled that Bush’s political team started focusing on the midterm elections as soon as he took office.

“We looked at the map of the whole country and said, ‘OK, here are some winnable seats,’” Hazelwood said.

The Bush White House was responsible for at least a few recruiting coups in the 2002 cycle, and Bush “wanted updates all the time on recruiting progress,” Hazelwood said. “It really mattered to him.”

Republicans credit Bush with helping the GOP win close Senate races that year in Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, New Hampshire and North Carolina, and they say he was also enormously helpful to House candidates in every region of the country.

Bush made these partisan forays even though he insisted, before taking office, that he wanted to be a “uniter, not a divider,” and despite the fact that political divisions had been tempered in the nation in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Democrats have bitterly accused Bush of squandering an opportunity to change the partisan tone in Washington, D.C., ever since.

“Bush himself was surprisingly engaged, especially given the post-9/11 times,” said Jim Jordan, who was executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2002 cycle. “But there was a considerable amount of post-election mythmaking about that cycle. [The top operatives at the National Republican Senatorial Committee] were the Republican heroes of that cycle, not [Karl] Rove or [White House Political Director Ken] Mehlman. The White House was engaged, and they brought resources to the table, but not nearly as deeply or smartly engaged as the boys at the NRSC.”

But while Democratic operatives believe that their Congressional candidates will be able to take advantage of Obama in much the same way Republicans benefited from their association with Bush in 2002, Hart cautioned that Obama, who worked assiduously to create a nonpartisan image during the campaign, could be criticized if he appears to be helping Democratic candidates too vigorously.

As a result, the Senate Democratic aide suggested, the grass-roots organization Obama for America may not be unleashed as a campaign weapon as often as party leaders would like.

“They’re doing a lot of things outside the party structure,” the aide said. “It may be that they don’t want to extend their brand to House and Senate politics.”

Either way, the president and Congressional Democrats are likely to be inexorably linked in the voters’ minds — and that heartens some Republicans who have lived through two consecutive miserable cycles.

“One-party rule in Washington means that Democrats will have full ownership of their legislative successes and failures,” said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

But Van Hollen said that while one-party rule carries some risks, it gives Democrats a golden opportunity to make good on their promises and profit politically. And in his roles as DCCC chairman and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) top liaison to the White House, Van Hollen can coordinate both elements of the strategy with Obama’s team.

“Being able to work with them at the intersection of politics and policy hopefully gets me in a position to help our most vulnerable Members,” he said.