In 2012, President Obama wanted voters to think about Democratic achievements under his watch when they showed up at the ballot box. In 2016, he wants voters to remember Republican havoc-wreaking – and specifically the kind of dark conspiracy theories, straight-up racism and weak-kneed GOP opposition that have fueled the candidacy of Donald Trump.
In a spree of campaign stops in recent days that have featured some particularly biting attacks on down-the-ballot Republicans, Obama is unleashed and unmuzzled.
In the last week, he was in Florida taunting Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) for endorsing Trump after calling him a con artist. He led a “Heck no” chant from the stump in Nevada in support of Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democrat running against Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) for Harry Reid’s seat. And at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraiser in California, he laid into Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the former chair the House Oversight Committee who led a number of investigations into Obama administration pseudo-scandals. He couldn’t resist, after the Issa campaign mailed fliers that suggested he had a productive relationship with Obama.
“As far as I can tell, [Darrell] Issa’s primary contribution to the United States Congress has been to obstruct and to waste taxpayer dollar on trumped-up investigations that have led nowhere. And this is now a guy who, because poll numbers are bad, has sent out brochures with my picture on them, touting his cooperation on issues with me,” Obama said Sunday evening. “Now, that is the definition of chutzpah.”
Obama’s current down-ballot crusade reflects the perks of being an incumbent president with a 54 percent approval rating. But it is also consistent with what the White House has signaled to be a key priority of his presidency: to reverse the tide of Republican federal and state legislative gains that occurred in the Obama era.
“He is in the unique position to make an impact in the cycle,” Ben LaBolt, the press secretary for Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, told TPM. “And many people who voted for him twice want to see his legacy expanded upon, and you can do that in these races.”
After years of unprecedented GOP obstructionism and fear-mongering, Obama now has the opportunity — with the help of Trump — to show voters the receipts.
“He looks to be having an awful lot of fun calling out the rank hypocrisy for many of these Republicans,” said Jim Manley, former spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Reid (D-NV).
Take Obama’s swing at Issa, which, on its own, is notable, given that Issa isn’t even running for the Senate, but just to hold onto his House seat. Obama relished twisting the knife into Issa, who — due to the drag of Trump — is facing a surprisingly competitive race.
“Here’s a guy who called my administration perhaps the most corrupt in history — despite the fact that actually we have not had a major scandal in my administration — that, when Trump was suggesting that I wasn’t even born here, said, well, I don’t know, was not sure.” Obama said. “This guy has spent all his time simply trying to obstruct, to feed the same sentiments that resulted in Donald Trump becoming their nominee. I think somebody called Darrell Issa — was this you, Doug [Applegate, Issa’s Democratic challenger] — who said Darrell Issa was Trump before Trump? And now he’s sending out brochures touting his cooperation with me.”
(Issa released a statement expressing his disappointment that Obama “continues to deny accountability for” his “serious scandals.”)
Likewise, Obama spared no mercy for Rubio, the Republican who once accused the President of “deliberately” weakening the country. Rubio is now stuck supporting the GOP nominee after warning of the danger Trump posed in the presidential primary.
“How does that work? How can you call him a con artist and dangerous, and object to all the controversial things he says, and then say, ‘but I’m still going to vote for him?’ Come on, man,” Obama said Thursday in Miami. “You know what that is, though? It is the height of cynicism. That’s a sign of somebody who will say anything, do anything, pretend to be anybody, just to get elected.”
Trump’s position at the top of the ticket has cleared the way for national Democrats like Obama to hammer their way down the ballot. On the one hand, the comfortable electoral map lead Clinton enjoys with two weeks until the election has freed her and her surrogates — including Obama — to spend more time and energy on rest of the ticket. On the other hand, Trump’s many scandals have put his fellow Republicans in the supremely difficult position of distancing without fully disavowing — or disavowing so late in the game that it makes for an easy target.
“I understand that Joe Heck now wishes he never said those things about Donald Trump,” Obama said Sunday at a Clinton rally in Las Vegas. “But they’re on tape, they’re on the record.And now that Trump’s poll numbers are cratering, suddenly he says, ‘well, no, I’m not supporting him. Too late.’ You don’t get credit for that.”
Obama’s current presence — front and center, with some of the most pointed lines of the cycle — is a far cry from the 2014 election, when there was plenty of hand–wringing over whether he was helping or hurting Democrat Senate candidates then.
“What a difference a 56 or thereabout approval rate can make,” Manley said. “2014 … he wasn’t the most popular guy around to bring into your state, but now it seems like an awful lot of people want him.”
Obama is also getting involved in state legislative races, endorsing candidates in Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada and other states to come. Beyond calling Republicans out for their past behavior, the President has an eye towards the future, and specifically the role down-ballot races will play in redistricting.
“He was a state senator. He knows what an impact legislatures can have, not only in terms of upholding things like Obamacare but also in terms of redistricting, or having the power to take back the House down the road,” LaBolt told TPM. But in the shorter term, Obama’s popularity coupled with Trump’s toxicity has given Democrats a particularly sharp weapon in their fight to retake the Senate and trim their margins in the the House.
“It’s not necessarily that these candidates are quote unquote, tied to Trump,” said Martha McKenna, the former political director for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. “But it’s that they won’t stand up to him. And if they won’t stand up to Trump, then they’re not going to stand up to the far right elements in order to get things done in Washington.”