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Obama Hits Road as Campaigner-in-Chief for Democrats

August 17, 2010 at 8:32 PM EDT
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With midterm elections less than three months away, President Obama is joining the campaign trail for some Democrats. Although many polls show his approval ratings have fallen, his schedule is packed with appearances to help campaigns. Judy Woodruff reports.
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JIM LEHRER: President Obama went on the American road this week for a coast-to-coast campaign swing, which was designed to build support for Democratic candidates and for his own economic policies.

Judy Woodruff has our story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With this fall’s elections drawing closer, President Obama has hit the road to raise excitement and, right now more important, money for the Democratic Party.

Overall, Democrats have outraised the GOP, but they need to keep it up, since polls consistently give Republicans the advantage. So, the president is returning to the role he played in 2008, when many voters viewed him as almost a rock star.

Just this week, his schedule is jam packed, with stops in five states, where he’s also talking up his economic agenda: Wisconsin and California yesterday, two appearances in Washington State today, before traveling to Ohio and Florida. The string of events started in late July with five money-raising events in six days, two each in Washington and New York City, and one in Atlanta. The pace continued as Mr. Obama moved on to Chicago, and Austin and Dallas in early August.

Today, he raised money in Seattle for Senator Patty Murray, helping bring his two-day haul to $2.7 million. Pepping up Democrats and pushing his own and the party’s record is a role Mr. Obama seems to have slipped back into with ease, even as he faces a much tougher political terrain.

U.S PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You didn’t send me to the Oval Office to just do what was popular. You sent me there to do what was right.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: That’s why you sent me…

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: That’s why you sent me to Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, yesterday, at a fund-raiser in Wisconsin for gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett, the president called out Republicans who he said want to return to failed policies.

BARACK OBAMA: If you want to make your car go forward, what do you do? You — you put it in D.

(LAUGHTER)

BARACK OBAMA: If you want it going backwards, what do you do? You put it in R.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: There’s — that’s not an accident.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Immediately afterwards, Mr. Obama flew to Los Angeles for an event for Democratic congressional candidates across the country. This followed some grumbling from Democrats that the president wasn’t doing enough to help them hold onto their majority. Making matters worse, last month, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged, Democrats could lose the House.

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: But I think there’s no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control. There’s no doubt about that. This will depend on strong campaigns by Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All this is taking place as the president’s own job approval poll ratings have been sagging, to under 50 percent, amid public concerns about the economy, government spending, and two wars abroad. But presidential historian Richard Norton Smith says, regardless of a commander in chief’s popularity, during off-year elections, being a fund-raiser goes with the territory.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, scholar in residence, George Mason University: It’s part of the job. Even presidents who are riding low in the polls are often very successful as partisan fund-raisers. George W. Bush, for example, demonstrated that throughout his presidency, Jimmy Carter in the latter part of his presidency likewise. So, there’s no real correlation between where you may stand in the Gallup poll and your ability to raise money for your party’s candidates. You are the fund-raiser in chief. There’s no doubt about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, some Democrats have avoided being seen with the president, particularly those running in red states. In Georgia, candidate for governor Roy Barnes didn’t attend a party fund-raiser with Mr. Obama earlier this month. And, in Texas, Bill White, who is running for governor, didn’t show up at either of the two events in his state.

Those Democrats keeping the president at an arm’s length were the subject of a humorous Web video put out by the Republican National Committee yesterday.

ACTOR: We’re just about to depart D.C. and go on my national fund-raising tour to your home states. That’s right. I’m coming to your home towns.

(SCREAMING)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some Republican candidates have also run ads trying to put their Democratic opponents on the defensive. In Missouri, governor candidate Roy Blunt paid for a TV spot after President Obama flew in to campaign for Democrat Robin Carnahan, trying to use Mr. Obama’s own words against Carnahan.

NARRATOR: July 8, 2010, Barack Obama’s raising money for Robin Carnahan. Why?

BARACK OBAMA: I need another vote. It would be helpful.

NARRATOR: He knows Robin Carnahan will rubber-stamp the Pelosi-Reid- Obama liberal agenda.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which highlights the question some vulnerable Democratic candidates are surely asking themselves: Can a push from the president do more harm than good?

Former Republican Congressman Tom Davis says it depends on where they are.

TOM DAVIS (R), Former U.S. Congressman: The president maintains a strong popularity among African-Americans. To get a Democratic base turnout model that helps elect Democrats, he can be very, very helpful. On the other hand, among independent voters, particularly in the South, and the Midwest, and the west, at this point, he’s probably a liability. And candidates want to run showing their independence, not the fact that they will be Obama robots.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Norton Smith agrees it’s a tricky question for Democrats facing serious challenges.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: So, it’s a question of the level of visibility. How much — how visibly do you want to be associated with the president? You certainly want to be associated with the president’s capacity to raise money for your campaign.

Can you have that without having whatever perceived downside there may be in being associated with the president and a program that may, in some districts, be unpopular? Fund-raising is one activity. Campaigning is another activity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The answers will grow even more tricky in the fall, when the president makes more appearances aimed at exciting and turning out the vote. That’s when Democratic candidates will likely be studying public opinion polls, their own and the president’s, even more closely than they are now.