Why Obama Can't Stop Meddling

The White House wasn’t commenting on the budding New York Senate primary until, suddenly, it was. Richard Wolffe on the debate within Team Obama over how much to delve into 2010 state races.

01.13.10 12:23 AM ET

As the drama grows over the race for the New York Senate seat once held by Robert Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, it’s useful to remember that Kirsten Gillibrand was not, in fact, the Obama administration’s first choice for the job. That distinction belonged to Kennedy’s niece, Caroline Kennedy—who was the prohibitive favorite for the seat left vacant in January 2009, until she wasn’t.

After Kennedy’s candidacy imploded, New York Gov. David Paterson tapped Gillibrand, a comparatively obscure upstate House member to fill out the unexpired term of Clinton, who left to become Obama’s secretary of State. The White House subsequently sought to persuade her patron, Gov. Paterson, not to run for reelection to the post he’d inherited (when his predecessor was forced to resign). Team Obama certainly didn’t seem inclined to go out of its way to show enthusiastic support for newly minted Sen. Gillibrand—until early this week, that is, when the White House surprised everybody by endorsing her reelection in hopes of driving a charismatic potential primary challenger, former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford, from the race.

“She’s an incumbent U.S. senator and I don’t think the president believes that expensive primaries in states that ought to be good for us are a good use of our time, money, or energy,” says one senior Obama aide.

Confused? We can’t blame you. New York politics are byzantine. So, too, are the White House motives for when and where to place the weight of the presidency behind candidates for state office in 2010.

Benjamin Sarlin: Harold Ford’s Money Challenge The president and his political operatives know that their most important job is to stay focused on passing health-care reform and spurring job creation in the new year. And they’re once bitten, twice shy: The administration drew fire for its attempt to persuade Gov. Paterson not to run for reelection—a move that backfired badly, making Obama’s crew seem obsessed with petty politics at a time of grave national crisis, and making the foundering Paterson seem almost heroically independent for standing up to the Washington bosses.

Still, these guys are from Chicago, and they can’t quite help themselves. So, despite several White House officials’ instinct to steer clear of any public comment this week, as the drumbeat about Ford’s possible to challenge to Gillibrand intensified, they chucked reticence out the window—and committed the power of the presidency to blocking Ford’s path. “She’s an incumbent U.S. senator and I don’t think the president believes that expensive primaries in states that ought to be good for us are a good use of our time, money, or energy,” says one senior Obama aide.

The Gillibrand episode reflects a growing debate within White House walls about how aggressively to engage the 2010 electoral map. Some Obama officials say it is far too early for the president to get active in this fall’s campaign. But other senior advisers have been busy trying to weed out the Democratic field in key races—while learning the lessons of the Paterson fiasco.

Another state where their influence may soon be felt: Illinois, where Democrats are fighting over the seat once held by… Barack Obama. After his election as president, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed Roland Burris to serve out the unexpired term. But both men were engulfed by ethics investigations, and Burris decided not to seek election to a full term. Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois’ state treasurer and a basketball buddy of Obama’s, is the front-runner. But the activities of his family’s bank have come under fire, and the White House has thus far laid low—perhaps waiting to judge how much the complaints about Giannoulias will benefit his Democratic primary rivals.

Whatever the debate, Obama’s team admits that they did not foresee needing to wade back into New York’s political waters.

Gillibrand was on a lot of the Democrats’ most vulnerable lists, as a moderate-to-conservative who had yet to win over New York City’s liberal base, despite efforts to tack leftward on several major issues. But she’s also enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the state's senior senator, Charles Schumer—a major Democratic fundraising machine, who’d lent his cash connections to his new protégé. It was only after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, unhappy with Gillibrand’s stance on health care and other issues of interest to the city, held a well-publicized meeting encouraging Ford’s candidacy that Obama’s team decided to step in and try to nip a primary challenge in the bud.

For the moment, the Gillibrand intervention appears likely to be an exception, not the rule. Obama’s aides say they believe they can best help shape the party’s fortunes this fall by getting health care through, passing a new package of job-creation measures, and pushing financial-services reform. “Good policy,” in other words, “is good politics,” as another senior White House aide put it.

“There’s no question the president is going to campaign and help people when they ask him to do so,” this aide said. “But it’s very early in the season. People should expect that health-care reform and regulatory reform will help anyone who wants to run on the reform mantle.”

Sounds great, in an ideal world. But those issues—and the Obama approach in general—aren’t polling all that well these days. Republicans are largely avoiding substantive policy stands, in favor of bashing the administration’s stands—and, for the moment, at least, it’s working. The party in power typically loses seats in the first midterm after a presidential election. Obama’s team knows this all too well. And the determination to focus on policy will be sorely tested by the temptation to get down and dirty in electoral politics—especially since White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, in his previous life as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, helped build the party margins now under assault.

Take comfort, Harold Ford. You might be the first would-be challenger to feel the weight of the White House this year. But odds are very good you won’t be the last.

Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.