President Obama will step out onto the campaign trail this year to help boost Congressional Democrats -- even though many of those candidates worry that the president may be a drag on their re-election efforts.
For months, Democrats hoping to maintain their Senate majority in the face of daunting electoral challenges have been frustrated by how the White House has handled key political issues, notably the problem-riddled Obamacare law that caused millions of their constituents to lose their existing health insurance.
Democratic lawmakers have also repeatedly criticized the lack of communication between the White House and Congress, particularly since a handful of vulnerable Democratic incumbents — whose fates could determine control of the Senate — were blindsided by the administration’s unilateral tweaks to Obamacare during its rollout.
But the White House's recent announcement that it was reviving its Office of Political Strategy and Outreach — an in-house nerve center connecting the president with the Democratic Party’s campaign committees — suggests a turnaround is in the works, or at least needed.
Complicating matters between congressional Democrats and the White House is the fact that while the president remains Democrats' most effective money magnet, his plummeting approval ratings and unpopular policy initiatives have lawmakers worried he'll undercut them with voters.
Senate Democrats, whose majority has provided an important legislative firewall for the president against the Republican-led House, have met with the president several times in recent months to massage out these political kinks and air grievances over campaign strategy.
Obama's popularity sank to staggering lows in 2013 and his approval ratings are now underwater — with more viewing him unfavorably than favorably — around much of the country. His average approval ratings last year were below 40 percent in several Senate battleground states including Alaska and Arkansas, Gallup polls show.
Vulnerable Democratic incumbents are not only distancing themselves from Obama's policies. Some don't want to be seen with him in public.
And other candidates are hardly enthused by the prospect. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who is favored to win re-election, ducked a question from CNN about whether he'd have Obama out to his state.
“We'll see what the president's schedule is, we'll see what my schedule is,” Udall said.
The White House political office, led by former top communications aide David Simas, isn't likely to coerce candidates into appearing with the president. Instead, it will focus on coordinating presidential fundraising appearances on behalf of Democratic campaign committees and candidates, and working with them to craft messages that will resonate with voters in November.
Obama delivered on his promise to conduct a robust round of party fundraising in 2013, but the party committees will be clamoring for more throughout the election year. So far, however, Obama has not committed to any events benefiting the party's Senate campaign arm.
Obama also is helping drive Democrats' campaign messages. He used his State of the Union address to highlight the populist themes candidates will carry into the campaign, including ways to address income inequality and a call for a higher minimum wage.
The task of helping Democrats diffuse attacks on Obama's signature health care law -- a central component of Republicans' campaign strategy -- will also fall to the White House political office.
The installation of a political office in the West Wing dates back at least to President Ronald Reagan. Its authority was expanded so much under President George W. Bush that it drew rebukes from a federal advisory agency and then-Sen. Barack Obama.
“The Bush-Cheney administration has perfected the perpetual campaign,” Obama said then.
But Obama set up a political office of his own in the White House when he first moved in. He moved his political aides to his re-election campaign organization ahead of the 2012 elections but is now reviving the White House operation.