Forget the big campaign rallies, glitzy photo ops and lofty stump speeches. President Barack Obama’s strategy for winning the midterm elections next month is simple: Raise money, lots of it.
The unpopular president has largely ditched the campaign trail for the money trail, serving as his party’s fundraiser-in-chief by bringing in millions of dollars to help vulnerable Democratic candidates in November.
Four weeks before the election, he is sticking to tony locales – Miami, Martha’s Vineyard and Greenwich, Conn., an affluent suburb of New York City, where he still boasts the ability to raise money for Democrats.
Obama has headlined more than 400 fundraisers since he took office, 89 of them this election cycle, as he fights to keep his agenda and legacy intact by maintaining Democratic control of at least one chamber of Congress.
On Tuesday, he added three more fundraisers when he flew to New York for the Democratic National Committee and then onto Greenwich for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The events included a closed roundtable at a Chelsea townhouse of prominent Democratic donors and a fundraiser at a multimillion-dollar estate surrounded by lush greenery near the Greenwich Polo Club. Tickets cost between $1,000 and $32,400.
“I’ve run my last campaign. Michelle is deeply grateful,” Obama said Tuesday afternoon at the event at the White Street restaurant in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. “But the issues I’m fighting for and the issues I will continue to fight for are at stake.”
Brendan J. Doherty, a political science professor at U.S. Naval Academy who wrote the book, “The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign,” said Obama’s actions are not uncommon for a president with sagging approval ratings. But Doherty said that it’s more pronounced with Obama this year because he’s responding to both the escalating costs of campaigns and a new crop of Democratic political action committees needing money.
“It’s not surprising that President Obama is helping in the way he can be most helpful, given the demands on him,” Doherty said.
Democratic candidates from across the nation – particularly in states turning increasingly red where Obama lost, including Arkansas, Louisiana, Iowa and North Carolina – are shunning the president. Not only do they not want to be seen with him, many are actively campaigning against him.
Republicans are predicted to gain seats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, where they are expected to remain in control in January. They need a net gain of six to wrest control of the Senate and, as a result, hold both chambers of Congress. They are finding the national atmosphere favorable as disgruntled Americans increasingly blame Washington, the Democratic Party and its leader for a slew of economic woes and foreign policy crises.
By 41 percent to 38 percent, voters say their opinions of Obama make them more likely to vote this fall for a Republican than for a Democrat, according to a McClatchy-Marist poll released last week.
Democratic political consultant Drew Lieberman attributes the problem to a “general malaise,” in part because many people are not feeling the improvements in the economy – an issue Obama himself raised in a recent economic speech. Fifty-seven percent disapproved of Obama’s handling of the economy in the McClatchy-Marist poll,
“I think some of the things the president has accomplished will not be apparent for some time,” Lieberman said. “While he has done things . . . people aren’t feeling it today.”
Obama has appeared with only a few of candidates this year. In almost every case it was because they attended one of his official events, such as a speech. Last week, Obama headlined a fundraiser for the governor of his home state, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, his first appearance with a candidate at a campaign event. This week, he endorsed Democrat Muriel Bowser for mayor of the District of Columbia, a Democratic city where he received 90 percent of the vote in 2012.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged that Obama has not begun “a sustained campaign of campaign-related activities,” though he insisted that the president has shared a stage with some candidates.
Kevin Madden, a Republican consultant who worked in the House and for 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said that if he represented a Democratic candidate and the White House called asking how they could help, he would say, “Send a check and stay home.” He said the Democrats’ best chance of winning next month is to campaign on local issues.
“He’s not the animated force that he was for the Democratic base voters in the past,” Madden said.
But for Democrats looking to keep at least partial control of Congress, Obama’s ability to raise money – and lots of it – remains invaluable.
It’s not surprising that the number of fundraisers presidents have headlined has increased over the years. Compare 89 for Obama to 77 for George W. Bush and 40 for Ronald Reagan during similar points in the election cycle, according to Doherty. Bill Clinton, who relished the task like no other president, had done a whopping 173 by this point.
Many of the events are closed to the public or open only to a small group of reporters.
Obama’s hosts are often Hollywood celebrities, Wall Street financiers or prominent Democratic supporters – including Shonda Rhimes, the producer of the ABC series “Scandal,” in Beverly Hills; Vogue editor Anna Wintour in New York; and award-winning Latino filmmaker Robert Rodriguez in Austin, Texas.
On Thursday, Obama embarks on a three-day trip to the West Coast, where he will attend a trio of fundraisers in Los Angeles and San Francisco. He will appear at actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s Los Angeles home, according to several published reports.
Generally, Obama has combined fundraisers with official business, but this week the White House had only announced seven fundraisers for the four days he is on the road. It added an economic speech to Obama’s itinerary Thursday.
“We’re in that season of the American political calendar where the president and others are spending more time than they otherwise would on the campaign trail,” Earnest said.
His constant campaigning has drawn criticism from Republicans, who say he has been raising money while the United States deals with multiple crises, from the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq and Syria to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
This summer, the National Republican Senatorial Committee called on Obama to cancel a fundraiser on Martha’s Vineyard as the U.S. began airstrikes in Iraq.
“Our country’s foreign policy is in shambles. We are facing so many security crises, yet President Obama’s instinct is to head to Martha’s Vineyard to fund raise for Democrats,” the group said in a statement at the time.