Senate Dems looking for distance from Obama, White House

If Barack Obama wanted his State of the Union speech to act as a rallying cry for Democrats — and it certainly didn’t offer many olive branches to Republicans — a Politico report suggests that it failed. Lame duck status has fully arrived as the Democrats Obama needs most to unite behind his banner are instead looking for ways to steer clear of it:

President Barack Obama is counting on Senate Democrats to help approve his legislative agenda during his final years in office. And though they are his staunchest allies on most economic issues, many Democratic senators are breaking with him on key issues in very public ways.

From trade to Iran sanctions, the Keystone XL pipeline, Obamacare, the National Security Agency and energy policy, Senate Democrats seem unusually comfortable criticizing the president, with only minimal concerns about repercussions from the White House.

Even Obama’s steadfast ally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, didn’t mince words last week when he rejected a bill to fast-track trade deals that is strongly backed by the White House, working against Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, a Senate colleague who has been tapped to be the president’s ambassador to China.

Burgess Everett offers one explanation — that this is simply poor message coordination:

The rifts might represent nothing more than bad message coordination and a White House that doesn’t do enough to keep Capitol Hill in the loop. President Barack Obama does not have terribly close personal relationships with most Democratic lawmakers, and his legislative affairs shop was riddled with Capitol Hill criticism until the recent addition of longtime Hill staffer Katie Beirne Fallon.

“This White House has been very, how shall I say, it’s not their strong suit to give anybody a heads-up on anything,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) of Obama’s outreach to Democratic senators.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza has crunched some numbers, though, and has a different explanation. It’s not messaging, but simple survival instincts at work, especially for the class of 2008 who have to face voters in November:

If the 2014 election is a referendum on President Obama, Democrats are in deep trouble.

That’s according to a new state-by-state study of Obama’s job-approval ratings released by Gallup that puts his disapproval rating at over 50 percent in 10 of the 21 states where Democrats are defending Senate seats this fall. In many of those states,Republicans have recruited strong candidates and are preparing to spend big bucks to win the six seats they need to regain the majority.

Obama is deeply unpopular — with a disapproval rating higher than 55 percent — in five states: West Virginia (67.3 percent disapproval), Montana (60.9 percent), South Dakota (59.3 percent), Arkansas (57 percent) and Alaska (55.4 percent).

Beyond those five seats, there is a second tier of states where the president’s disapproval rating stands somewhere between 50 percent and 55 percent, including: Iowa (50.1 percent disapproval), New Hampshire (50.2 percent), North Carolina (50.4 percent), Colorado (51.2 percent) and Louisiana (53.9 percent).

The problem for these Democrats is that the State of the Union makes the referendum approach impossible to avoid. Obama has declared that he will bypass Congress, and people who are unhappy with Obama only have one way to restrict him now, which is electing Republicans in the midterms. Even with the GOP’s problems among their base, they’re going to get a big turnout for that opportunity. Furthermore, if Senate Democrats aren’t interested in rallying behind Obama, neither will their own base.

This goes way beyond poor messaging and neglect of Capitol Hill relationships. Obama has become toxic in these states, and the only way these incumbents even have a prayer of survival is to stay at arm’s length from the President. Republicans need to keep tying them to Obama, especially ObamaCare, and keep the focus on the White House.

Jazz Shaw May 16, 2022 12:41 PM ET