Obama's midterm strategy: Do no harm

WASHINGTON - For Democrats facing tough re-election campaigns this fall, an appearance with their somewhat unpopular party leader may be more of a hindrance than a help.

Aware of that fact, President Obama has focused his midterm election strategy around ways he can do the least harm to his party this fall. Chiefly, that means bringing in the cash.

Though Democrats haven't always been satisfied with the president's commitment to fundraising in past election cycles, there's little they can complain about this year. During the 2014 season, Mr. Obama has headlined 40 events so far with more planned for the fall.

Closer to Nov. 4, Mr. Obama will do radio interviews and online appearances, and will work on turning out certain voter groups, like young people and African-Americans. He will likely campaign for a few individual candidates, White House officials say, but mostly those running for House seats and the governor's mansions in states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

"That's important in a non-presidential year when Democrats don't turn out to vote the way Republicans do," said CBS News political director John Dickerson.

But as for the key Senate races - which could decide whether Mr. Obama's party controls at least half of Congress or neither chamber - the president will stay largely on the sidelines.

The most competitive races are happening in states where he has never been popular or has seen his approval rating dip in recent months, including Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska and North Carolina.

"We will go where we're most helpful and we will not go where it's not helpful," White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said about Obama's Senate strategy.

Even though Election Day is just two months away, he has yet to campaign with a Democrat whose seat is at risk. Though Mr. Obama planned to hold a July fundraiser with Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, the event was cancelled at the last minute when Udall said he needed to stay in Washington for votes.

Other Democrats aren't in states that are especially unfriendly to Mr. Obama, but are aware of his low standing nationally.

A CBS News poll from early August shows that just 40 percent of Americans approve of the way the president is handling the economy, and that number drops to 36 percent when they are asked about his foreign policy record. Just 41 percent of Americans approve of his job performance overall, a number that has been fairly consistent over the past year.

Republicans, who generally have better turnout than Democrats in non-presidential years, are hoping to boost that number even further by reminding voters that they could put Congress entirely in GOP hands this fall.

And Republican Party leaders are casting incumbent Democrats as little more than a rubber stamp for what they claim is the president's failed agenda.

"After voting with him anywhere between 90 and 100 percent of the time, it's easy to see that a vote for a 2014 Democrat is a vote for another two years of Obama," said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

The GOP is also suffering from historically low approval ratings - just 29 percent of Americans favored them in the CBS News poll - but Republicans are all but certain to maintain control of the House. They need to pick up just six seats to have a majority in the Senate, which would be the first time in Mr. Obama's presidency.

A CBS News/New York Times Battleground Tracker from late July finds the Republicans positioned to take the Senate this year, with a likely 51-49 seat edge if the November election were held then.

That leaves Obama with the grim reality that even the most favorable outcome of the fall campaign will be a continuation of the divided Congress that has stymied nearly all of his second-term legislative goals.

White House officials are not optimistic that holding the Senate would mean a sudden success of the president's agenda. Instead, they say it is crucial to preventing Republican challenges to current laws and ensuring that the president can get nominees confirmed.

During a fundraiser in August, Obama tried to motivate Democrats by hinting that "we're going to have Supreme Court appointments" during his final years in office.

There is at least one bright spot for Obama: After a deeply flawed rollout, the Affordable Care Act no longer appears to be a major factor weighing down Democrats as it did earlier this year. They say Mr. Obama also remains their best asset for rallying core constituencies who could sway close elections, particularly young people and black voters.

"He's one of the strongest motivators for our grassroots in terms of voter turnout," said Rep. Steve Israel, the New York lawmaker who serves as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.