President Obama hits the road today for a mix of policy and politics, using a two-day trip to Missouri and Nevada to tout clean energy and job creation and also bring in some campaign cash for two vulnerable Democratic Senate candidates.
Obama travels to Kansas City today to deliver remarks on the economy at Smith Electric Vehicles, which boasts of being the world's largest manufacturer of electric vehicles. After that he will do back to back fundraisers for Missouri's Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, the Democratic Party's likely nominee for the Senate this fall.
Obama then heads to Las Vegas for a Thursday night fundraiser with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and remarks on the economy Friday morning.
The dynamics of the Senate race in Nevada -- and politics in general -- are different than the last time Obama campaigned for Reid back in February.
Sen. Scott Brown had just won an upset victory in the race to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts, breaking the Democrats supermajority in the Senate. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) announced he would not seek re-election, the fifth Democratic senator to do so, because of the hyper-partisanship that he felt prevent legislative progress in Washington. His announcement brought the number of vulnerable Democratic Senate seats to 10 and Obama's party was looking increasingly on the ropes for November, with Reid at the top of that list.
Reid is locked in a dead heat with his Republican challenger, newcomer Sharon Angle, but one Democratic official said that the "tectonic plates have shifted" in Nevada.
"At that time, talking about Harry Reid winning it would have been a joke," this official said about Obama's last visit to Nevada. "The fact is we're now in the hunt."
Several party officials expressed confidence that Reid is in good enough shape at this stage in the campaign and some were cautiously optimistic that the Senate Majority Leader will pull out the win.
That may be more because of the state of play on the Republican side than Reid suddenly improving his own standing in his home state. Angle came out of nowhere in the closing days of the Republican primary, buoyed by massive support from the Tea Party movement, which kicked in half a million for her campaign. Democrats have pointed to Angle's anti-government positions as evidence that she is outside of the mainstream and said at the time of her primary victory that they were glad to run against her because it enabled them to make the campaign all about her -- rather than a referendum on the unpopular Reid.
That dynamic is a theme that will be heard in races across the country, with the Democrats constantly saying the midterm elections are a choice, not a referendum on Obama or the Democratic majorities in Congress.
"There's a choice that candidates are going to be making in each race and it will turn on that," said one Democratic Party official.
But Republicans will certainly go the referendum route.
"The distilled argument that Republicans can clearly make to voters is that with the Democrats in charge we're advancing policies that are not helping them on the core issue they care about which is the economy," said Republican strategist Kevin Madden. "At the end of the day [voters] have reacted to the economic slowdown very conservatively. They spend less money and they've tried to do more with less and Washington has done the exact opposite -- spending is out of control and Democrats have grown the size of government."
Obama redrew the electoral map in 2008, picking up wins in states that Democrats had long been shut out, like North Carolina and Colorado. But as the campaign and Election Night faded in the rear-view mirror, the president's polling numbers declined from their peak in the upper 60s.
Today Obama's job approval ratings are hovering around the 50 percent mark but holding steady there for most of this year. The attitudes of Americans have continued to sour as unemployment remains high and job creation has been slow. In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, sixty-two percent of Americans said they feel the country is on the wrong track, the highest level since before the 2008 election.
This is Obama's fifth trip to Missouri since he took office and he may have some unfinished business to wrap up there.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, Missouri was one of the key targeted battleground states that Obama was unable to flip from Red to Blue. It was also the state with the fewest votes separating Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Obama, with McCain winning by just 3,903 votes.
So it's perhaps that desire to flip something in the state from Republican to Democrat, and a hot Senate race that has Obama back in the Show-Me State once again.
The race for Missouri's open seat is shaping up as a bitter, close battle between Carnahan and Republican Rep. Roy Blunt. Democrats view the race as a prime opportunity, one of just a handful, to pick off a Republican seat by painting Blunt as a Washington insider while Republicans will try to link Carnahan to Obama and his agenda.
Obama was in St. Louis in March, raising money for the Democratic Party and for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, an early supporter of his presidential bid who is not up for re-election until 2012.
Carnahan was conspicuously absent -- she was in Washington for meetings, part of her official duties as Secretary of State. Democrats said she was not dissing the president, but chalked it up to a scheduling conflict.
State and national Republicans tried to make hay of her absence when Obama was in town, suggesting that she wanted to avoid a photo op with a president whose polling numbers were declining. Blunt's campaign said that Carnahan could fly east but she "can't hide from her rubber-stamp support of Barack Obama."
White House and Democratic Party officials still will not reveal where the president will campaign between now and Election Day, but maintain, as they have for months, that there is a large stack of requests for his time. Party officials say that Obama will be more visible on the trail over the next four months and will "aggressively" for Democratic candidates where and when he can be helpful.
Obama's campaign engagement is not so vastly different from former President George W. Bush in 2006, who focused more of his time, efforts and travel on fundraising rather than rallies with candidates. Strategists in both parties said that is a by-product of weakened poll numbers and the fact that presidents can simply be more helpful drawing in the big bucks than doing a rally to gin up supporters.
National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said that Obama's efforts on the stump last fall and earlier this year for candidates that ultimately lost in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts are evidence of why candidates like Carnahan have "taken great pains" to not appear at events with Obama.
Walsh said that even if Democratic candidates dodge appearances with the president, Republicans pledge to continue hammering away at their ties to the president's agenda.
Democratic Party officials welcome that game plan and think it benefits their candidates.
"As we learn in PA 12 Republican efforts to nationalize the election lose out to a Democratic candidate focused on jobs and middle class," said DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz of the House special election to fill the seat of the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha. Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi factored heavily into the Republicans' strategy to tie the Democratic candidate to the party in Washington.
Democrat Mark Critz won that seat by eight points -- in the only district voted for Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) in 2004 and flipped to Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) in the 2008 presidential election.