Facing the prospect of an embarrassing defeat for his party in Tuesday's midterms, President Obama and his advisers are increasingly looking past looming setbacks and focusing instead on how the public will view his record after leaving office.
It's an entirely predictable aim for a second-term president with waning popularity and political leverage. Like his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama remains insistent that his accomplishments have been overshadowed by the daily rigors of governing in a hyper-partisan environment.
As Washington remains consumed by the likely Republican takeover of the Senate, Team Obama would argue that the president's record will look far more impressive in hindsight. And they say that Obama isn't nearly as politically toxic as suggested, even as vulnerable Democrats distance themselves from the president whenever possible.
Obama's defenders point to the 2016 electoral map, which is more favorable for Democrats, as proof that the president has not endangered his party's long-term viability. They also predict Republicans will eventually embrace the core elements of Obamacare and that the president will eventually receive credit for steady improvements in the economy.
But that message offers little good news for Democrats searching for silver linings heading into 2015, analysts warned.
“I heard that from Nixon's advisers on the day he resigned,” quipped Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center of Politics, of the validated-by-history argument coming from the White House. “To some degree it's true. But it doesn't help any president for the final two years to say, 'Where's that car that will take us to the future?'”
Of comfort to the White House is that Bush's approval ratings, which nosedived during his final two years in office, have risen to respectable levels since leaving Washington — they have even surpassed Obama's.
However, a president clearly eying his legacy also risks alienating the public if he looks overly satisfied with his job performance so far. To avoid the appearance of complacence, Obama has already announced executive action on immigration reform — after the midterms — and could even move unilaterally on controversial items, such as closing the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“I think Obama realized after the 2010 elections that his lawmaking days were over,” Sabato said.
Whether by choosing or necessity, Obama has also devoted more of his time lately to foreign policy, a trend that will continue with the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria expected to outlast his presidency, and Russian President Vladimir Putin showing no signs of backing down in Ukraine.
Though Obama is giving Democrats space — he's campaigning only with liberal governors ahead of the midterms — he's expressed frustration with their hesitance to run on his policies, particularly his economic record and Obamacare. Such thinking is perhaps what motivated the president to declare his policies “on the ballot,” trumpeting his own resume in the face of disbelief from Democratic candidates.
It's a delicate balancing act for a one-time political rock star, not wanting to hamper his own party's chances in November while avoiding the appearance of irrelevance.
“This country has made real progress since the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes,” Obama insisted at a campaign rally this week with Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke. “When I came into office, the economy was in free fall. The auto industry was on the verge of collapse. But over the past four and a half years, America’s businesses have created more than 10 million new jobs.”
Some political observers said that Obama was too late to define his accomplishments.
“He's never sold his own programs,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “There has been a cost to that. His team is filled with people who aren't quite comfortable with how to do it — presidents have to be more aggressive.”
Yet, certain Democrats argue that the president should at least temporarily shelve his pride and worry more about protecting the Senate than making a sales pitch to voters who have largely tuned him out.
“It's not about him right now,” complained an aide for a Democratic Senate candidate in a red-leaning state. “He's probably right. He probably doesn't get his due. But that's not a message that helps us right now. He can wait a little longer to go into legacy mode."