POLITICS: PennAve

Obama needs a comeback to hold Senate --- and rescue his legacy

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Politics,White House,Congress,Democratic Party,2014 Elections,Campaigns,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,State of the Union

President Obama's State of the Union address served as the opening salvo in a bid to rescue his legacy and fire up Democratic voters in a crucial midterm election year.

In the sixth year of his presidency, Obama is desperately trying to regain his footing after Obamacare -- his signature legislative initiative -- became an albatross and his approval rating plunged from a re-election high of 56 percent to the low 40s.

California Sen. Barbara Boxer, one of his most ardent supporters, said the speech was among Obama's best and got his presidency back on track.

“If ever there was a comeback kid, this was the comeback kid,” Boxer told the Washington Examiner right after the president's speech.

Poll numbers, however, tell a different story, and winning back the trust and affection of voters will be an uphill slog.

Obama got little to no bounce from the address, with his approval rating still hovering around an all-time low of 42 percent days after the speech, according to Real Clear Politics' daily tracking poll. An ABC News poll before his speech showed a whopping 63 percent aren't confident he'll make the right decisions for the country.

Obama's decline couldn't come at a worse time for Democrats with so much at stake for his agenda. There are 21 Senate seats up for re-election that are held by his party, and more than half are vulnerable.

The re-election hopes of red state Democrats, including Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, could rise or fall on the president's popularity.

Over the past three years, Obama has depended on Democrats in the Senate to protect his policies and legacy. If the Republicans take the Senate for the first time in seven years, they could repeal key aspects of Obamacare and stop the president's agenda dead in its tracks.

The White House has responded to Obama's declining popularity by beefing up his political operation and embarking on the biggest staff shake-up at the White House since 2010, with the hiring of seasoned Washington hands John Podesta and Phil Schiliro in December.

The messaging shift is clear: Obama is further distancing himself from Congress, which has poll ratings even lower than his. The president has been reluctant to engage lawmakers in the past and is now declaring 2014 “a year of action” and vowing to bypass Capitol Hill with executive orders on an array of issues.

While Republicans are fuming about what they regard as unconstitutional overreach, Obama has made a noticeable shift away from attacking GOP economic policies as “social Darwinism” or describing Wall Street as “fat-cat bankers.”

Instead, he is trying to strike more positive notes, speaking of “opportunity for all” and pledging to help the middle class and close the gap between the rich and poor -- repackaged echoes of his standard stump speeches on the 2012 campaign.

Richard Benedetto, a longtime White House reporter for USA Today who now teaches journalism at American University, said it will be difficult for Obama to reset his message and regain public support, especially in his second term — a time when presidents lose political capital and influence by the day.

“Presidents like to say when they're in their second terms they don't have to worry about politics anymore and they can focus on their legacy,” Benedetto said.

President George W. Bush, who got pummeled by the press over the Iraq War during his last two years, almost gave up fighting political battles. Bush's predecessor, President Clinton, found himself mired in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and had a vice president who was running away from his legacy.

In the last two years of Ronald Reagan's second term, the president's health was in decline, so he rarely traveled and was unable to help fellow Republicans.

But Obama doesn't have the luxury of letting fellow Democrats fend for themselves if he cares about his legacy and keeping Obamacare intact, Benedetto pointed out.

“Democrats are putting a lot of pressure on him because Obamacare has hurt them and the economy remains shaky,” he said. “He wants to help them, but he really wants to help himself, too -- he is counting on Obamacare as his legacy, and that's anything but solid right now.”

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