Keeping Obama at arm’s length

President Obama.
AP/file 2013
President Obama.

THROUGHOUT SEPTEMBER of 2008, every week produced another ugly milestone in the unfolding financial crisis. Just after Labor Day, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage machines, were taken over by their regulator. Ten days later, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. Two days after that, the Federal Reserve released an unprecedented $85 billion rescue plan for insurance giant AIG; and on Sept. 29, when the original Troubled Asset Relief Program bill failed in the House of Representatives, the Dow Jones index plunged nearly 800 points.

It was a great time to be a Democrat. The public placed responsibility for the crisis squarely in the lap of President Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. In a matter of days, John McCain’s poll numbers had crashed, never to recover. As Barack Obama’s numbers soared, so did the fortunes of those Democrats running for Congress. The scramble was on to get their smiling picture taken while campaigning by his side. When the Election Day dust finally settled, the 59-vote Democratic bloc in the Senate was their greatest majority in over 30 years.

How times change. The giddy electoral success of 2008 has been tempered by the harsh political reality of 2014. Implementing Obamacare, the president’s signature legislative achievement, has been a logistical nightmare; millions of families have lost their insurance coverage; and Obama’s approval ratings have fallen below 40 percent. “Dance with the one that brought you,” the saying goes, but when you are a Senate Democrat stuck with the wrong prom date, there’s only one thing to do: hide in the bathroom.


In states that Obama failed to carry in 2008, some senators have dispensed with any formalities. With an urgency bordering on panic, Alaska’s Mark Begich put it bluntly: “I don’t care to have him campaign for me,” he told Politico last week. In case the president didn’t get the full message, Begich added that “his policies aren’t working” and that “he’s wrong” to hold up oil exploration in northern Alaska.

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In Arkansas, Mark Pryor has been more diplomatic, but don’t bet on Obama to show his face in the state anytime before election day. And when the president went to New Orleans for a high-profile visit late last year, Senator Mary Landrieu was nowhere to be found.

Even in states that went blue in 2008, caution is the order of the day. Polls already show North Carolina’s Kay Hagan trailing prospective Republican challengers. In New Hampshire, Jeanne Shaheen (to whom I lost in our 2008 rematch) is now running neck-and-neck with Scott Brown. Neither Hagan nor Shaheen has asked Obama to campaign with her, and both have been coy about whether they even want him to visit their states. Don’t look for a presidential bus tour to roll through Charlotte or Manchester this summer.

Democrats running for the open seats in Montana, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Nebraska will have an easier time dodging Obama’s shadow, since they’ve generally avoided endorsing his legislative agenda. But this tactic may be of little use in these states, which Obama lost in 2008. Since then, policies like delaying the Keystone XL pipeline and shutting down coal power plants have made him less popular than ever. Veteran political analyst Charlie Cook currently rates all of these seats as likely Republican gains, which will only focus more attention on the evasive maneuvering of Democrats in competitive states.

This distressing trend may simply be a product of fate. The tides of history work against US presidents in their sixth year. In such midterm elections over the last century, the party in the White House has lost an average of six Senate seats — exactly what the Republicans need to take back control. If it’s any consolation to Obama, Republicans found themselves in the identical position in 2006. As the Iraq conflict dragged on and Bush’s numbers sank, reporters delighted in asking whether Republican candidates would be campaigning alongside the president. Their losses that year were massive.


In politics, however, nothing is written in stone. There are nearly nine months to go before Election Day. If nothing else, the lesson of 2008 is that political fortunes can rise or fall on a whim. Still, with Senate Democrats running for cover where ever they can find it, Obama has given life to one of my favorite jokes: “I didn’t have a prom date, so I just put a nice sweater on the back of a chair and told everyone she was in the powder room.” He and congressional Democrats are great friends — really! But these days, they just never seem to be at home when he calls.

John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.