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Why the White House Won't Admit Obama Is a Drag for Democrats

The president enjoys campaigning, but he's not welcome in many close races this year. He's in a similar predicament to President Bush in 2006, when Republicans lost control of Congress.

Another week of presidential travel and fundraising. Another round of bad polls. Another day closer to the realization by Democrats that there really is nothing President Obama can do to alter a campaign dynamic that all year has been gloomy for his party. You won't hear that acknowledgement, of course, from anybody at the White House. No one in that building ever easily admits to an inability to shape events.

Obama's press secretary Josh Earnest suggested that even after a year of extensive presidential travel and heavy fundraising, Obama has not really begun to fight. He acknowledged this week that Obama "has not begun a sustained campaign of campaign-related activities, if you will." Earnest noted a handful of times the president has been seen publicly with beleaguered candidates and indicated there will be more in the few weeks remaining before Election Day. "The president has already succeeded in making a pretty aggressive case," he said, adding, "And I would anticipate that in the context of the upcoming elections you'll hear the president make that case again."

That kind of confidence that an incumbent president's use of the bully pulpit can impact campaigns was found in other White Houses while they were under siege. There is something about being a senior White House aide that doesn't permit much talk of defeat. "I don't remember feeling frustrated or defeated in any way. I remember just feeling busy," recalled Dana Perino, who was deputy press secretary to President George W. Bush during the 2006 midterm campaign. "We did know, though, that we were pushing against history."

Perino credited Karl Rove, hailed by Bush as the "architect" of his 2004 reelection and the top political adviser in 2006, with being the inside cheerleader even as the bad news was coming in from campaigns across the country. "I'd be with Karl and Karl would tell you that if all the stars aligned and the sun was just right, that there was a possibility that we could keep the Congress," she said. "You would sit with him and you would be convinced. And then you'd leave and say, 'Wait. Really?' " Now a Fox News host, Perino said every White House needs someone like Rove in tough times. "You always have to have somebody positive around the president."

But it isn't easy to be positive when presidential approval dips below 40 percent. Republicans in 2006 ended up losing both the House and the Senate as well as a majority of the governorships. This despite what would have to be viewed as a gallant effort by the president. In October and November alone, Bush traveled to 18 states. There were plenty of fundraisers. But, unlike Obama this year, there were also public rallies with Republican aspirants in 10 states. Throughout, Bush did not hide from the fact that he was unpopular and a possible drag on GOP candidates. Asked at a late-October press conference if he resented Republicans distancing themselves from him, Bush joked, "No, I'm not resentful, nor am I resentful that a lot of Democrats are using my picture. All I ask is that they pick out a good one; make me look good, at least, on the picture."

Despite Bush's good cheer and his vigorous efforts to rescue his party, many of the candidates brave enough to appear with him tasted defeat—even in solidly Republican states. A National Journal tally found that of those who appeared with Bush, seven House candidates, five Senate candidates, and four gubernatorial candidates lost their races.

A frustration shared by both the Bush and Obama White Houses is their failure to persuade Americans that the economy was better than it seemed. "We used to have meetings about what we could be doing from a communications standpoint to try to break through on the economy," Perino said. Today, the same meetings are underway at the Obama White House. The same question dominates those sessions that dominated them eight years ago—as Perino put it, "Why can't we get credit for a good economy?"

The hope throughout 2006, she said, was that midterms turn on the economy. So they tried to emphasize that the country was in the middle of what turned out to be 52 months of uninterrupted job growth. Today, Obama boasts that "our businesses are in the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history"—a very carefully constructed claim that only accounts for private-sector jobs. In 2006, Bush hoped for a political boost when the unemployment rate in early October fell to 4.6 percent. Today, Obama hopes for a boost from the early October announcement that the jobless rate has fallen to 5.9 percent, the lowest rate since 2008.

But Bush discovered—as Obama is today—that a president in his sixth year has little power to change a deeply seated political dynamic. "We've seen this picture before," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report. "We know the ending." And that ending is likely to mean the end of Democratic control of the Senate, he said. "If the Democrats hold on to the Senate, it would be a surprise ending. Surprises do happen, but let's be clear: It would be a definite surprise."

He said voters know that this election "is about Obama. And it's hard to get them to change their opinion." Any hope of changing that belief probably ended with the president's ill-advised comment on CBS's 60 Minutes that "I am not on the ballot this fall. But make no mistake: [My] policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them." That comment sent shudders through Democratic candidates up and down the ballot. Analysts agree there is not much Obama can do to affect the upcoming vote. But Rothenberg said they agree that making that comment "was a thing that he shouldn't have done."

One Democratic strategist with candidates running uphill in several states had a blunt answer when asked what the president could do to help his candidates: "Precious little." Another strategist said the only thing he could think of would be a trip to Turkey or Saudi Arabia to meet with other members of the antiterrorist coalition to show command and leadership. Rothenberg suggested the only thing that could help is to have Obama keep raising money to fund attack ads. "The only way the Democrats are going to hang on in individual races is by demonizing, defiling, and destroying the Republican challengers. That's it."

As he spoke, the president was on his way to a fundraiser.