Obama to campaign for Coakley Sunday

Jon Ward Contributor
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President Obama is going to Massachusetts to campaign for Democratic candidate Martha Coakley on Sunday.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs foreshadowed the president’s line of attack against Republican candidate Scott Brown, calling him “a candidate who feels comfortable fighting for the insurance industry and big banks.”

The trip is an enormous political risk for the president, but also an indication that the White House believes that the situation is as dire as the latest poll suggests.

“It’s an important senate seat. That’s why the president’s going,” Gibbs said.

Brown, campaigning on a promise to cast the deciding vote against Obama’s health care reforms, has surged out of nowhere over the last week to pull ahead of Coakley, who has committed a series of gaffes this week.

The Obama strategy, Gibbs made clear, will be to hammer Brown as a defender of big banks and of huge bonuses for executives at financial institutions. Brown said Thursday night that he opposes the administration’s plan to impose a $90 billion tax, over 10 years, on large financial institutions.

The Brown campaign did not respond directly to the White House but said Friday afternoon that Brown “will spend the remaining days of the campaign the same way he started it — shaking hands with Massachusetts voters and talking about his plans to keep taxes low and cut out wasteful spending.”

“Martha Coakley’s tax-raising schemes will kill jobs and hurt our economy. She will be a rubber stamp for the political machine at a time when people want to end business as usual in Washington,” said Brown campaign manager Beth Lindstrom, in an e-mailed statement.

The Brown campaign said that the tax would be ineffective because it “will be passed onto consumers through lower interest payments on savings accounts.”

One of the problems Coakley will face in attacking Brown is that on Monday she came to Washington for a fundraiser hosted by a number of lobbyists for large health insurance companies and drug companies.

Here are the risks Obama runs by going.

1. If Coakley loses, it is a huge blow to the president’s prestige and political capital. The rebuke from the International Olympic Committee in Copenhagen last fall would look like a kiss on the cheek in comparison. Additionally, it would make the Republican argument, that voters are angry about the Obama agenda, and not other factors, a very persuasive argument.

2. If Coakley loses, it arms Republicans with the argument that voters are so upset with government spending and the Obama health care reforms that the anger has penetrated one of the most liberal and loyally Democratic states in the country. The Suffolk poll out Thursday night showed that people in Massachusetts are agitated about government spending at the state and federal level, and do not like President Obama’s health-care reforms for that reason.

Although Obama has a 55 percent favorability rating in the poll, with 35 percent unfavorability, his health-care reform being hashed out in Washington is opposed by 51 percent of those polled, compared to 35 percent who support it.

When asked if the federal government can afford the health-care plan under debate, 61 percent said no and 32 percent said yes.

The economy and jobs was the most important issue to 44 percent of respondents, and health care was top for 38 percent. No other issue came close. And 90 percent of people said that the recession is not over in Massachusetts.

However, the White House could say with some justification that the voter angst is based primarily on state issues. In fact, Gibbs was already doing so Friday.

“This has to do with … individual circumstances,” he said. “We don’t draw great national trends out of state races that are genuinely decided on state issues.”

3. The president will be pilloried – as former President Clinton is today – for engaging in politics when the world is focused on a natural disaster of epic scale in Haiti.

On the other hand, if Coakley loses, all of the administration’s work over the last year on health care might go down the drain.