By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — President Obama, in trouble at home, is quite literally heading for the border.
His approval rating is in the 40s, vulnerable Democratic candidates don’t want to be seen with him and Republicans think his unpopularity could win them the Senate. So it’s likely no coincidence that Obama is making himself scarce in these parts.
This week, he’s in Mexico. Next month, he visits the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Saudi Arabia. In April, he travels to Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and the Philippines. Last Tuesday morning, French President Francois Hollande invited Obama to France for the 70th anniversary of D-Day; Obama accepted before lunchtime.
After Obama met with Senate Democrats earlier this month, one of the lawmakers told The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe that Obama assured them that “he would not be offended if he were not invited” to campaign for them. Even when he travels around the country, it’s often for anodyne appearances such as Tuesday’s visit to a grocery distribution center in the safely Democratic state of Maryland.
That’s hardly surprising. The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s polling of competitive Senate races finds Obama’s support at 28 percent in West Virginia, 36 percent in Arkansas, 38 percent in Louisiana, 39 percent in Iowa and Michigan, 40 percent in Alaska and 42 percent in Colorado. Public polls find similar results for Obama in other competitive states, such as Kentucky, Georgia, New Hampshire, South Dakota, North Carolina and Montana.
“Seems like he might be welcome in Massachusetts,” quipped Brad Dayspring of the Republican group.
But if Obama is a toxic wingman for Democratic candidates, they desperately need his help fundraising. And they are grumbling that he hasn’t been willing enough to assist them. Even a marginally popular president remains a huge draw among party donors, but fundraising isn’t easily done from Brussels and Tokyo.
After weeks of complaining to the White House, Democrats said last week that Obama had committed to doing at least 18 fundraisers this year: six each for House Democrats, Senate Democrats and other party committees.
That came as a relief to Democrats, but it’s still a modest commitment. In 2006, when George W. Bush was even less popular than Obama and Republicans feared a loss of the House, Bush did 74 fundraising events, according to CBS News’ Mark Knoller, a meticulous presidential statistician. The Republican National Committee put the tally at 80.
Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer told me that the 18 events are those Obama has promised “thus far.” Democrats had better hope there are many more. Although individual Democratic committees have done reasonably well raising money, the Democratic National Committee is deeply in debt. At the end of the year it had $4.7 million in cash but $15.6 million in debt. The RNC had no debt and $9.2 million in cash.
On top of the DNC’s money disadvantage, the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling has put more pressure than ever on the party to raise funds to compete with outside groups. The billionaire Koch brothers and other mega-donors are expected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars this year to shape the midterm outcome, and Republicans enjoy a healthy majority of the super-rich. The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity has already spent millions targeting vulnerable Democrats.
Compounding some Democrats’ frustration, Obama has also been raising money for Organizing for America, his former campaign apparatus that now functions as something of a shadow DNC. “When you create your own ‘DNC’ with OFA, there’s a reason the actual DNC is in debt,” said one party operative.
There’s probably nothing that Obama could do in these midterm elections to match the conservative billionaires’ advantage. But at least giving it a try might prove more productive than his combination of foreign jaunts and unremarkable domestic speeches: at an electric equipment maker in Raleigh, N.C.; a gas engine plant in Waukesha, Wis.; a Costco in Lanham, Md.; and steel mills in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Then on Tuesday he was back in Maryland, at a Safeway distribution hub in Upper Marlboro “where delivery trucks get everything from Doritos to diapers where they need to go.”
Obama gave an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand update on the economy: “The unemployment rate’s actually the lowest it’s been in over five years. But the trends, the long-term trends that have hurt middle-class families for decades, have continued.” He then spent the next 15 minutes talking about higher fuel-economy standards for trucks.
It’s a worthy cause, no doubt. But diapers, Doritos and diesel won’t deliver Democrats from a drubbing in November.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.