WASHINGTON – They were fired up and ready to go – home, that is.
Democrats left nothing to chance for President Barack Obama’s first campaign rally of the 2014 election season Sunday evening. They arranged for him to speak in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, which went 90 percent for Obama in 2012. They put him in the gymnasium of a middle school that shared a campus with Barack Obama Elementary School, which explains the “We Rock at Barack” sweatshirts in the crowd. Some 90 percent of those in the audience were African American – a demographic that still supports Obama to the tune of 84 percent, vs. 30 percent of white Americans.
The man Obama was stumping for – Maryland gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown – has a healthy lead over his Republican opponent in reliably Democratic Maryland and therefore had little worry about sharing a stage with Obama. Even so, they left the presidential seal off the lectern, and Obama remained hidden offstage while Brown addressed the crowd.
Yet for all those precautions, Obama’s rare campaign appearance did not go as planned, and not only because a man heckled him for his refusal to block more deportations. With about five minutes to go in his 25-minute speech, about the time Obama said, “I’m just telling you what you already know,” people began to trickle out. By the time he had finished, perhaps a few hundred had walked out on the president.
This exodus wasn’t intended as a protest. Long lines for shuttles taking attendees to remote parking sites induced participants to leave early so they could beat the rush.
But the overall effect was akin to what happens when baseball fans begins filtering out in the seventh inning because the home team is down by five runs. And, in a way, that is what’s going on in these midterm elections.
Obama is President Pariah in these final weeks of the 2014 campaign. Vulnerable Democratic candidates don’t want to be seen with him. Three Democratic senators have run ads distancing themselves from him, and Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic Senate candidate in Kentucky, has refused – absurdly – to say whether she voted for Obama. Obama’s support is 40 percent nationally and lower in the Republican states where many of this year’s competitive races are taking place.
But it isn’t easy to hide the president.
He’s 6-foot-1 and rather recognizable. He travels in a custom 747, and he’s followed everywhere by reporters and camera crews. Besides, avoiding the campaign trail completely would only confirm that he’s unwanted. So he’s planned limited appearances, mostly in urban areas in safely Democratic states: Bridgeport, Conn., Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Detroit. His more-popular wife, along with Vice President Joe Biden and Bill Clinton, have been assigned to the electoral battle zones.
There was no shortage of affection for Obama at the junior high school in Upper Marlboro, Md., on Sunday. A few thousand filled the gym and overflowed into a second room. But when Rushern Baker, the Prince George’s executive, told the crowd that Brown would be a leader “in the model of” Obama, the response in the room was notably muted.
Gov. Martin O’Malley tried to revive the old Obama cheer. “Are you fired up?” he asked.
“Yeah!” the crowd responded, skipping the “Ready to go” response.
O’Malley tried again: “Fired up?”
O’Malley, as if by way of apology, assured the crowd that “no president in modern history has ever inherited a bigger mess of problems, bigger unemployment, bigger deficit, longer wars, than President Obama.”
Brown began his 11-minute speech by saying he had come to welcome Obama, but he didn’t mention the president again until the final minute, when he introduced “a friend, a partner and a leader.”
Obama emerged to a thunderous cheer and the strains of U2’s “City of Blinding Lights,” and his speech was interrupted by shouts of “We love you!” and “You’re the best!” But he has been off the trail for a long time, and his speech drifted discursively from Brown to his own record and agenda, to the ills of the Republicans, back to Brown and then back to the Republicans. Finally, he arrived at a “you’ve got to vote” riff.
This had the sound of a peroration, which started the race for the shuttle buses. But, oblivious to the thinning crowd, Obama kept going, about the need to fight cynicism and to advance the American dream.
So it goes for President Pariah in 2014: Even among the faithful, Obama’s magic can’t match the urge to get a jump on traffic.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.