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Obama to Donors: Stakes Are High for Midterms

Obama to Donors: Stakes Are High for Midterms

By Alexis Simendinger - May 15, 2014

If more Democrats could be exported to live in Nebraska and Wyoming, the country would be better off, President Obama joked during a New York City fundraising event Wednesday evening.

If congressional districts weren’t so gerrymandered; if unmarried women went to the polls in non-presidential years; if American governance wasn’t quite so political; and if Republicans weren’t allergic to bill signings with Barack Obama, Washington might be able to fix what ails the country, he said.

The president -- addressing wealthy patrons assembled to support the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the art-filled home of investment banker Blair Effron and his wife -- painted a bleak picture of partisan roadblocks this year, while warning of policy U-turns ahead if the GOP controls Congress.

“The stakes here are big,” Obama said. “And I want people to feel the same sense of urgency about this as they do about a presidential election.”

As the president passed the hat for Democrats during two Manhattan fundraisers -- a midterm ritual he describes as his third campaign -- his complaints about Republicans were plain. So were his laments about progressive voters.

“We have a congenital disease, which is [that] during midterms our voters don't show up,” he said, alluding to pollsters’ recent assessments that Democrats are turned off or apathetic, while older, white Republicans and independents say they’re enthusiastic about achieving GOP control on Capitol Hill.

“We do not vote during midterms,” Obama continued, suggesting that Democratic donors can help change historical participation outcomes. “Our voters are younger. They’re more likely to be minority, unmarried women. … We have a tougher time communicating with them during midterms.”

Obama is so determined to call attention to Democrats’ turnout conundrum that his lively descriptions have leaped from sexiness to somnolence to sickness. On Wednesday, he called the turnout troubles a disease. Not long ago the president complained that midterm elections simply “are not sexy” to the Democratic base, and in March he called his party “sleepy.”

Whatever faults Democratic voters might possess, Obama offered high praise to Democratic lawmakers.

“The only reason we've been able to make some progress and gain some traction is because we've had a Senate in Democratic hands that has shown extraordinary unity -- which means that we've at least been able to get our agenda out there and have a debate about the minimum wage, and have a debate about increasing funding for basic research, and have a debate that says, no, climate change is real and it is both a challenge and an opportunity we can do something about,” he said.

Since his first visit as president to Capitol Hill barely a month after his inauguration in 2009, Obama has admonished Senate Democrats about the virtues of party unity. Cohesion was a challenge when the president’s job approval numbers were at their apex, and it has remained a challenge as House Republicans wielded greater influence starting in 2011. Democratic lawmakers this year coalesced around campaign themes such as middle-class fairness, but are not always in lockstep with one another, or with Obama.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who understands the stakes for Senate Democrats better than anyone in Washington, threw into question a carefully constructed compromise with the GOP to fill judicial vacancies. Defying West Wing talking points, Reid announced he opposed Obama’s nominee to serve on a federal court in Georgia. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Reid said he had not discussed his misgivings with the White House before speaking publicly.

During an event earlier Wednesday in which Obama stood in front of the Tappan Zee Bridge to tout the economic benefits of federal road and infrastructure improvements, he groused that Republican lawmakers feared being linked to him.

“Everything is becoming political,” the president told an audience that included New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “They’re more interested in saying no because they’re worried that maybe they’d have to be at a bill signing with me than they are at actually doing the job that they know would be good for America.”

At policy events and fundraisers, the president suggests his legislating days with this Congress are kaput. No traction with House Republicans on immigration reform. No minimum wage hike. No gas tax increase to replenish a depleted Highway Trust Fund. The cure is to elect more Democrats to the Senate, Obama said, lawmakers who will enact policies that majorities of Americans say they support, even if Democratic voters aren’t all “awake” to the stakes come November.

But maintaining Democratic control of the Senate is unlikely to bridge partisan disputes, even with the Tappan Zee and the president’s hopes in the picture.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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