WASHINGTON -- Hampered by low approval ratings and an unfriendly electoral map, President Barack Obama enters the fall campaign as a liability to some vulnerable Democrats and a target for Republicans trying to fire up conservatives and appeal to disillusioned independents.
Mindful of his precarious political position, Obama is charting a midterm election strategy intended to help where he can and, perhaps most importantly, do no harm to Democrats.
Thus far, that has meant embracing his status as the party's most prolific fundraiser. While Democrats have grumbled in past election cycles about Obama's level of commitment to the party's success, the president has been an aggressive fundraiser during the 2014 campaign, headlining 40 money events this year, with more to come this fall.
Obama is also expected to do targeted outreach as Election Day nears, using radio interviews, online appeals and other strategies to encourage young people and African-Americans to vote.
White House officials say Obama probably will campaign in October for individual candidates, namely those running for the House, as well as gubernatorial candidates in contested states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Yet the president will be largely sidelined in nearly all of the races that will determine November's biggest prize: control of the Senate for the remainder of his presidency.
The most competitive Senate contests are in states where Obama has never been popular or has fallen out of favor with voters. Those states include Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, and North Carolina.
"We will go where we're most helpful and we will not go where it's not helpful," White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said about Obama's Senate strategy.
With just two months to go until Election Day, Obama has yet to campaign alongside a Democrat at risk of losing in November. He planned to hold a July fundraiser with Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, but the embattled incumbent pulled out at the last minute, citing a need to stay in Washington for votes.
Of course, it's more than a conservative-leaning electoral map that has some Democrats trying to keep Obama at arm's length.
For much of the year, his approval rating among the American public has hovered in the low 40s, the lowest of his presidency. He also has been battered throughout the summer by a seemingly endless string of foreign policy crises.
A Gallup poll conducted in August put public support for Obama's handling of foreign affairs at 36 percent. His approval rating on the economy sits at 35 percent, reflecting the fact that many Americans are yet to feel the impact of higher economic growth and lower nationwide unemployment.
Republicans see Obama's difficult stretch as a boon for their electoral fortunes. They are using the prospect of neutralizing the president for his final two years in office as a way to motivate conservatives to show up in an election where turnout is expected to be low.
GOP leaders are casting incumbent Democrats as little more than a rubber stamp for what they claim is the president's failed agenda.
"After voting with him anywhere between 90 and 100 percent of the time, it's easy to see that a vote for a 2014 Democrat is a vote for another two years of Obama," said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Republicans themselves are experiencing their own historically low approval ratings. But the GOP is all but certain to maintain control of the House. Republicans need to pick up just six seats in order to achieve a majority in the Senate for the first time in Obama's presidency.
That leaves Obama with the grim reality that even the most favorable outcome of the fall campaign will be a continuation of the divided Congress that has stymied nearly all of his second-term legislative goals.
White House officials appear resigned to the notion that few legislative victories await them even if Democrats hold the Senate. Instead, they are casting the fight to retain control of the chamber as crucial to staving off Republican challenges to current laws and ensuring that the president can get nominees confirmed.
During a fundraiser in August, Obama tried to motivate Democrats by hinting that "we're going to have Supreme Court appointments" during his final years in office.
There are some bright spots for Obama.
His health care law rebounded after a deeply flawed rollout and no longer looks to be the drag on Democrats that it appeared to be earlier this year. Democrats say the president remains their best asset for rallying core constituencies who could sway close elections, particularly young people and black voters.
"He's one of the strongest motivators for our grassroots in terms of voter turnout," said Rep. Steve Israel, the New York lawmaker who serves as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
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