LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — President Barack Obama doesn’t go there anymore.
The days of Obama traipsing around the country to states like Montana, Indiana or Arkansas in freewheeling campaign mode — and with sky-high popularity lifting Democratic candidates — are long over. With his approval rating sliding, the president in the next few weeks is primarily sticking to big cities — Milwaukee, Cleveland and Philadelphia — and other party strongholds, like Connecticut, where he can help fellow Democrats in the midterm election homestretch.
Who’s campaigning for Democratic candidates in Arkansas on Wednesday? Former President Bill Clinton, ex-governor of the state.
“Judging from the polls I’ve seen on approval ratings, President Obama couldn’t help many people in Arkansas,” Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe told reporters Tuesday. “That’s about as candid as I know how to be.”
“Clinton can still help some, but most people rise or fall on their own,” Beebe said. “There’s probably something to that old adage about coattails, but not much.”
Arkansas has voted Republican in the past three presidential elections, but Democrats control the governor’s office, the state Legislature, three of four House seats and both Senate seats.
Obama hasn’t been in the state since 2006, when he helped Beebe win the governorship. Obama lost Arkansas’ 2008 Democratic primary to hometown favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton and lost Arkansas’ six electoral votes that fall to Republican John McCain.
Two months before Election Day, public and private polls show Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln badly trailing her GOP opponent, Rep. John Boozman, even though she’s stressed her independence from party orthodoxy. House Democratic candidates Joyce Elliott and Chad Causey also are struggling to keep in Democratic hands two seats left open by retirements.
Republicans are heavily favored to win big this year, and Lincoln is arguably the most endangered of Democratic Senate incumbents.
But it was Clinton who parachuted in to help his old friend during the runoff that she narrowly won this spring. And it’s Clinton who is seeking what some Democrats privately call a rescue attempt in her uphill battle against Boozman.
“It’s a tough state now, but I think the real danger to America is a combination of anger and apathy and amnesia,” Clinton said Wednesday after hosting a fundraiser for Elliott. “What the voters need to decide is what do they want and who’s most likely to give it to them in terms of action.”
He warned Democrats to avoid coming across as defensive.
“You’ve got to let people have their anger. People feel helpless, they have a right to be mad. But when you make a decision and you’re mad, there’s about an 80 percent chance you’ll make a mistake,” added Clinton, who like Vice President Joe Biden, has campaigned in places where Obama hasn’t.
Obama’s absence here this year underscores just how much time has changed since he was a freshman senator flooded with requests by candidates in 2006 and when he was the Democratic presidential nominee with exceptionally strong standing in 2008.
Now he’s the president — and a polarizing one at that.
He has spent his first 19 months in office pushing policies such as health care overhaul that divided the country and drove down his standing in opinion polls. The latest Associated Press-GfK poll showed Obama’s approval rating was 49 percent. It’s even lower in Arkansas.
Republicans here are trying to use the president against Democrats. GOP challenger Jim Keet refers to Beebe, a popular incumbent favored to win re-election, as “Obama’s silent partner” on issues like health care.
Democrats worry that Obama’s appearance in places like Arkansas could further turn off independents and boost turnout among an energized GOP base. Lincoln has used the president’s support sparingly, running a radio spot during the primary and runoff campaign featuring the president.
Certainly, there is only so much a president can do to help candidates when he’s not on the ticket. Since Obama’s election in 2008, Democratic statewide candidates in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts lost even though Obama campaigned for them.
Still, Obama is well-liked personally, and particularly among Democrats who must turn out this fall in droves for the party to curb what are expected to be huge losses in both the House and Senate. He’s focused these days on raising money in big-dollar locations and boosting a lackluster Democratic base in places with competitive Senate races, like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Some Democratic candidates are betting that Obama will help them more than hurt them. He campaigned in swing states this summer with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada and Senate candidate Robin Carnahan in Missouri.
Obama also campaigned last month for Illinois Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, who is seeking to fill Obama’s former Senate seat. On Thursday, Giannoulias is expected to begin airing a television ad featuring Obama’s endorsement.
“We will go to places where candidates think that is helpful,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last month. “We’ll raise money in places where candidates and committees think that’s helpful. … No, we’re not going to go to places where people think it’s unhelpful that we go. That would be crazy.”
In Arkansas, Causey has tried to distance himself from the Obama administration. When asked at a recent forum to grade the president, Causey quipped, “My mom said if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it.”
Sidoti reported from Washington.