Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Meeting privately with congressional aides in December, Democratic strategist Paul Begala gave a piece of advice about the 2010 mid-term elections: Don’t try to gain traction by bashing or running away from President Obama.
But as the election season kicks in, many Democrats aren’t listening.
With Obama’s approval ratings down and voters in a sour mood, some Democratic candidates are distancing themselves from the White House — positioning themselves as independent voices no less frustrated with the Obama administration’s personnel and policies than people back home.
They are targeting the president himself in some instances. But they are also singling out Cabinet members, who have become convenient foils.
Some lawmakers have all but called for certain Cabinet members to resign, accusing them of neglect and incompetence when it comes to programs meant to ease family financial burdens.
Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat who represents a California Central Valley district burdened by high unemployment and home foreclosures, said: “The Obama administration has failed miserably in trying to solve the problem.”
Rep. Jim Costa, a Democrat who also represents California’s Central Valley, blames Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for not doing enough to alleviate a drought that that has hobbled farmers. Costa said his calls to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel have gone unreturned.
“They’re not listening carefully enough to the people I represent,” Costa said.
Asked if he wants the president to campaign for him, Costa said: “I’m more popular in my district than the president.”
Far from discouraging an independent stance, the White House political operation and the Democratic congressional leadership are tacitly putting out word that the strategy may be a useful one, according to party campaign operatives.
One Democratic campaign aide said he spoke to the White House’s regional political desk recently and came away with the message that “they understand that some campaigns and candidates will have to go their own way on certain issues. I don’t think they love it, but they understand it. That’s the reality.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said: “Our candidates need to reflect the values and priorities of their districts. And that means, on some issues, they’ll support the Obama administration’s position and on some issues they’ll oppose it.”
Moving in lockstep with the White House poses risks for certain Democrats. Some 49 House Democrats serve in districts that were won by Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election.