Standing a few feet from President Barack Obama during a rally in support of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds at Old Dominion University last Tuesday, I was enthralled by the spectacle of American democracy in action. As I watched Obama attempt to inject some last-minute momentum into the faltering campaign of a man who remains 11 points behind his Republican opponent in the latest polls, I could not help but question whether the president had better things to do with his time.
Campaign endorsements are often of debatable value to either party, and there are some who argue that a sitting president should remain above the fray when it comes to such races. While I see no problem with Obama lending Deeds a helping hand in principle, it is hard to see what either man gained from Tuesday’s event at ODU.
On the one hand, Deeds has long kept Obama at arm’s length, fearing that too close an association with the president would arouse the disapproval of his conservative Bath County constituents. However, trailing opponent Bob McDonnell so drastically with only a week to go until Election Day, he figured he had nothing to lose by enlisting Obama to sprinkle some fairy dust on his lackluster campaign.
What transpired last week, however, was little more than an act of desperation. Red-faced, loud and aggressive behind the podium, Deeds looked uncomfortable with Obama when he finally appeared. This was not surprising given that almost all of the primarily African-American crowd of 5,700 were certainly not there to see him.
Moreover, Deeds does not share the close political bonds with Obama that outgoing Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine does. Painfully invoking Mark Twain’s cliche, “reports of my demise have been much exaggerated,” Deeds could not disguise the fact that for all of his blustering and Obama’s showmanship, this was too little too late.
As for Obama, he may have handled the crowd as effortlessly as ever, but some of the excitement has fallen away from his performances in the wake of slipping approval ratings and such high-profile setbacks as his attempt to weigh in on Chicago’s failed Olympic bid.
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There was even a certain arrogance about his arriving in Virginia at the last minute to try and bolster the campaign of a man whose performance in the race was attacked by his own aides in a story recently leaked to the Washington Post.
Ultimately, it is hard to shake the impression that Obama still enjoys playing the candidate more than he does the commander in chief. He has been rightly criticized for preferring to go out on the stump in support of healthcare reform, rather than engage in the kind of arm-twisting behind the scenes in Congress that will really help get the legislation through.
With this and his ongoing deliberations on the strategy of the war in Afghanistan, you could be forgiven for thinking that the White House Situation Room was a better place for Obama to have been last Tuesday.
It is not Obama’s fault that Deeds and the Democratic nominee for governor from New Jersey, John Corzine, are in need of some campaign magic. In contrast with Deeds, Corzine seems intent on riding Obama’s coattails all the way into office.
Ultimately, voters in New Jersey must ask themselves whether they want to re-elect someone like Corzine, who is relying so heavily on presidential popularity to help him to victory. Similarly, such a transparent attempt as Deeds’s to paper over the cracks of his campaign, rethinking a decision over which he has long equivocated, and embracing Obama, leaves a bad taste in the mouth of electors.
There are two lessons here for prospective candidates about presidential endorsements: One is to decide quickly whether you need the president’s formal support or not. Two is that a helping hand is fine, but the president’s popularity should be no substitute for your own.
Obama is a busy man, and democratic candidates across the country should not waste his time like Deeds did Tuesday.
E-mail Tim Macfarlan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cartoon by Vicky Chao.