BOSTON (AP) — Trailed by controversy, President Barack Obama pressed ahead with efforts to boost Democrats Wednesday in Boston and Miami, raising questions about whether the second-term president will be more asset or liability to his party in the coming election season.
Fulfilling a pledge to work harder to help elect Democrats than he did in years past, Obama came to Massachusetts to rally voters before of a nationally watched special Senate election later this month. He stops in Miami in the evening to raise cash at two private homes for the Democratic Party.
Each stop lends Obama's proven ability to energize Democrats to the party's cause this year and next, with control of Congress and Obama's second-term agenda at stake. The visits also create opportunities for Republicans eager to link their Democratic opponents to the Obama administration's recent troubles, including controversies involving the Internal Revenue Service and government intelligence-gathering.
Even in Democrat-friendly Massachusetts, there are signs of modest declines in Obama's popularity as Republicans seize on the White House's struggles in the June 25 special election to replace John Kerry and in nascent campaigns across the nation.
"We hope that the president thinks he's going to be an asset, and goes all over the place," said Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman. "When you look at how the candidates are reacting, so far the early ones are running away fast."
Rep. Ed Markey, the Democratic hopeful in Massachusetts, last week criticized the government's massive collection of personal phone and Internet records, even as Obama defended the practice. The disclosures about the National Security Agency surveillance came with the administration already facing questions over the IRS' improper targeting of conservative groups, the seizure of journalists' phone records and the handling of the attack in Libya last year that left four Americans dead.
After Air Force One landed, Obama was greeted at the foot of the stairs by Markey, Gov. Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas Menino, who is on crutches after recent surgery. The group headed for the jam-packed Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe in Boston's South End to schmooze with diners and workers.
"This guy has been fighting for Massachusetts for a very long time," Obama said of Markey, a current House member who was elected in 1976. Obama said the June 25 election is important and that he came to Massachusetts "to make sure everybody turns out and votes."
In Massachusetts, 60 percent of likely voters in the coming special election give the president favorable marks, according to a Suffolk University poll released this week. While a strong number, that's a decline from last month. Nationally, Obama's approval ratings are hovering at just under 50 percent.
"The numbers that you've seen dropping nationally are dropping here as well," said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. "There are some Massachusetts voters who are beginning to question the administration on some of these issues."
At a minimum, the shift complicates the president's promise to go all out for the party in the 2014 elections, mindful that sending more Democrats to Congress could be the difference between success and failure for key aspects of his agenda such as immigration, climate change and a budget deal. Republicans control the House, and the Democrats' Senate majority could be in jeopardy.
Democratic officials say Obama has agreed to headline at least 20 party fundraisers in and out of Washington. That's in addition to candidate-specific events like Wednesday's rally in Massachusetts. The aggressive schedule has seen Obama campaign so far this year in California, Texas, Illinois, New York and Georgia. He raised $3.25 million for House Democrats on a single day in April in San Francisco.
The president continues the effort later Wednesday with a Miami fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.
But Obama probably won't attend many rallies in other places like Louisiana, Arkansas and West Virginia, where Democrats are defending Senate seats in conservative-friendly territory.
"Every candidate has to make their own decision," said David Plouffe, who ran Obama's 2008 campaign. "You don't force yourself on a campaign. If they want the help, they're going to ask."
Plouffe said the White House understands that Democrats in deep-red states will need to distance themselves publicly from Obama on some issues. But even in those states, they may want to take advantage of Obama's vaunted political operation.
"We have a lot of volunteers in every state of the country," Plouffe said. "Those volunteers are still an underappreciated secret weapon in terms of how we won."
The aggressive pace of Obama's efforts this year is a marked shift for a president criticized for doing too little to help his party win elections during his first four years in office.
In 2010, Democrats lost control of the House — and with it, their hopes for enacting sweeping policies on the scale of Obama's health care law. In 2012, Obama's spot on the ballot helped drive Democrats to the polls, giving down-ballot Democrats a boost. But locked in a heated contest for re-election, Obama had little time to raise money or campaign for other candidates.
"There's a big difference in this race," Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday at a fundraiser for Markey, urging Democrats not to take the special election for granted. "Barack Obama's not at the head of the ticket. And that means those legions of African-Americans and Latinos are not automatically going to come out."
Democratic operatives involved with 2013 elections in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia privately concede that the White House's struggles have been a distraction but still welcomed White House assistance — particularly with fundraising. Other White House stars have been helpful as well. Besides Biden, first lady Michelle Obama has hosted finance events for Markey and Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe.
"President Obama has won Virginia twice, has a unique ability to express to voters the stakes of this election, and we'd certainly want him to campaign with us," McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin said.
Other Democrats were not so sure.
The pro-Republican group America Rising PAC last week distributed a video of Arizona Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick repeatedly refusing to say whether she would campaign with Obama.
"There's a lot of frustration with the administration now," Kirkpatrick said in a local television interview.