The White House is missing something in this election season: a corporate bad boy to rail against and whip up the ire of Democratic voters.
Oil companies, Wall Street executives and even the political action committees that draw unlimited donations are off-limits to President Barack Obama because of unique political dynamics in the 2014 midterms.
That’s left him with the most generic of adversaries, the Republican Party.
“Campaigns are often times decided just as much by what you’re against as what you’re for,” said Ben LaBolt, who was Obama’s 2012 campaign press secretary and now is a communications consultant. “This cycle, Republicans are running against Obamacare, full stop. Democrats are for raising the minimum wage and pay equity -- but they could be sharper about what they’re against.”
Finding a rallying message that will boost turnout for the midterm elections is critical for the president and his party as they work to maintain their Senate majority. Democrats are defending 21 of the 36 Senate seats on the ballot in November, including seven in states the president lost in 2012. With the Republican hold on the House firm, a flip in the Senate would give Obama’s partisan foes an opening to widen investigations of the administration, hold up nominations and force him to use his veto power.
“Even though the president’s name is not at the top of the ballot, the stakes of this election are very high,” Josh Earnest, an Obama spokesman, said.
Read My Lips
Obama’s strategic shift is evident in his words.
The White House political operation has kept familiar message themes -- reducing income inequality, boosting economic mobility and pay equity for women -- while framing this year’s election as more a choice between Democratic and Republican economic visions rather than a battle against outside forces.
At events over the past month, Obama shied away from a populist tone. He praises companies such as Costco Wholesale Corp. and The Gap Inc. for raising their workers wages and goads friendly audiences into booing House Republicans for their stances on the minimum wage and cutting government programs. On May 9 he was in a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. outlet in Mountain View, California, to laud the company’s commitment to using renewable energy.
Talking to donors last week in Los Angeles, Obama made the contrast with Republicans explicit.
Party of No
“We believe in pay equity; they say, no,” Obama told supporters at the home of Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn on May 7. “We believe in a higher minimum wage; they say, no; We believe in making sure that we’re investing in our infrastructure and putting people back to work, and investing in innovation and basic research that can unlock cures for things like Alzheimer’s. Their budget takes us in the opposite direction.”
Compare that to the Dec. 6, 2011, speech Obama gave in Osawatomie, Kansas, where he laid out the economic fairness message he used for his re-election campaign.
He accused Republicans of aligning themselves with “insurance companies that jacked up people’s premiums with impunity, and denied care to the patients who were sick; Mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes they couldn’t afford; A financial sector where irresponsibility and lack of basic oversight nearly destroyed our entire economy.”
During the 2010 midterm elections, Obama cited the battle against “special interests,” “Wall Street banks,” “corporations,” the “oil industry,” the “insurance industry” and “credit-card companies.” He even went after specific corporations, saying the Republican agenda was “written by a former lobbyist for AIG and Exxon Mobil.”
Political and policy considerations are taking Obama’s usual targets out of play for this year’s elections.
Going after big oil has the potential to backfire for two vulnerable Democratic senators, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska, who represent two states heavily dependent on the industry.
Railing against insurers may be tempting. Polling shows one of the strongest attacks against Republicans who are calling for the repeal of Obamacare is to argue they are pushing to put insurers back in charge of Americans’ health care, said Stan Greenberg, a democratic pollster and chairman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.
“There’s no doubt that House Republicans and Speaker John Boehner are an effective foil,” Greenberg said. “But the insurance industry is also important and inherent in the repeal discussion.”
For Obama, though, picking on the industry carries the risk of antagonizing the very companies that could make or break further success for the health-care law that is his signature domestic achievement.
“The insurance companies and the administration are inextricably intertwined,” said Dan Mendelson, chief executive officer of Washington-based consulting firm Avalere Health. “They have to live in symbiosis for better or worse, for richer or poorer. They need each other.”
As for Wall Street, the president has been trying since his re-election in 2012 to make amends with corporate and financial executives after the White House heard complaints that his first-term rhetoric was anti-business, including deriding “fat cat bankers on Wall Street.”
The wealthy donors pouring money in influencing the election are out as well. While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has zeroed in on the millions of dollars being spent by billionaires Charles and David Koch on behalf of Republicans, Obama has adopted the if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them stance. He’s urging Democratic donors to give to a party-aligned super political action committee.
The recommendation from the White House to Democratic candidates: focus on the economy and on Republicans blocking Obama’s proposals, including the minimum wage and extending unemployment insurance. The main goal is to paint a picture for voters of what full Republican control of Congress would look like, according to an administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss political strategy.
That may be a hard sell. While voters side with Democrats when asked their positions on specific economic issues, recent polls show, Republicans have the advantage in the midterm elections six months away.
A CNN/ORC poll conducted May 2-4 found that among people who voted in the 2010 midterm elections, 48 percent would choose the generic Republican candidate compared to 45 percent for the generic Democrat.
An ABC/Washington Post poll released last month showed that a majority of voters -- 53 percent -- said it was more important to have Republicans in charge of Congress than Democrats to act as a check on Obama’s policies.
“You always find something to demonize, someone you could attack and try to change the subject,” said Charlie Cook, publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “I have no doubt that Democrats and the White House will find something and the only question is does it get any traction?”