President Obama must confront one of the biggest issues in this year's congressional elections: President Obama himself.
The president wants his fellow Democrats to keep the Senate, would love to see them re-take the House, and has made it clear he's willing to help — but in some cases, the best thing he can do for Democratic candidates is to stay away.
If the Republicans have their way, Obama's record — particularly the health care law — will be front and center in the elections.
The GOP's major targets include seven Senate seats now held by Democrats in states that Obama lost in the 2012 election, and where his approval ratings in 2013 averaged 43% or less. And there are signs some Democrats are distancing themselves from Obama on issues such as the proposed Keystone oil pipeline and the economy in general.
"Every Democrat running this cycle has baggage of having supported Obama and his policies for years," said Kirsten Kukowski, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, citing health care in particular.
Democrats said that Obama can and will be an asset for Democrats in November, and that the health care law will be more popular by the time the elections roll around.
Supporters noted that the president can raise tons of money, and fundraisers will likely dot Obama's schedule throughout the year. Obama can also galvanize the coalition that helped elect him president in 2008 and 2012, including African Americans, Hispanics, single women and progressives, backers said.
"Nobody's got the ability to motivate the activist base and the donors more than the president," said Ben LaBolt, a former White House and Obama campaign spokesman.
LaBolt said Obama should be "deployed in a strategic way that drives up turnout of that coalition in key states," including those with Republican incumbents.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama "is going to assist Democrats in every way that he can."
The political challenges facing the sixth-year president figure to shadow the 2014 congressional elections and will likely affect the president's schedule. The White House and Democratic political organizations will have to decide when, where and how often Obama campaigns for Democratic candidates in the fall.
"He could become a liability for some Democrats sitting in red states," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor with The Cook Political Report, though she added that many Democrats will welcome the president's ability to raise money.
Matt Canter, deputy executive director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the 2014 races will be decided at the state-by-state level.
"Senate races are not a referendum on the president, or on any one single issue," Canter said. "Each of these races are a choice between the two people on the ballot."
As November approaches, the Republicans are considered heavy favorites to retain control of the House of Representatives, where they now enjoy a 232-200 advantage.
Most of the attention is focused on Senate races, though the GOP will have to have a big day to win control of that chamber.
Democrats currently enjoy a 55-45 advantage in the Senate, including two independent members who caucus with them. Republicans would have to win a plurality of six seats in order to claim a majority.
The Democrats also have more seats to defend, however. Of the 35 Senate races in November, 21 involve seats now held by Democrats — some in red states where Obama fared poorly during his 2012 re-election and where his approval ratings are low.
Gallup reports that, for the year 2013, Obama's approval ratings averaged 43% or below in seven states with Democratic senators who are being contested this year: West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana, Alaska, Arkansas, North Carolina and Louisiana.
Some of those incumbents face uphill fights that include the Obama factor. And some have publicly drawn differences with Obama. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat seeking re-election in Alaska, criticized Obama's State of the Union Address, saying that "while the president delivered a lot of sound bites that may sound good in a speech, we need to hear a clear plan and commitment to economic growth."
Obama and the Democrats are also running up against history: The party in control of the White House tends to lose congressional seats in the sixth year of the presidency.
That's not always the case. Republicans had high hopes for the mid-term elections in 1998, with President Bill Clinton mired in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But Democrats broke even on Senate races and actually picked up House seats that year.
In the next presidential sixth year — 2006, with George W. Bush in the White House, and the Iraq War unpopular — Republicans lost control of both the House and Senate.
Democrats are quick to point out that Republicans have problems of their own. Some of their incumbents — including Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell — face challenges from more conservative Tea Party members. In the last two sets of Senate elections, Democrats have held onto seats by beating Tea Party candidates in states like Nevada, Indiana, Missouri and Colorado.
Obama's political plans for 2014 surfaced in a series of meetings last week, including conferences with both House and Senate Democrats.
The president also met last week with Harry Reid, the majority leader of the Senate, as well as Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Obama will be involved in the elections, Carney said, because Democratic candidates "share the president's priorities" on such issues as "taking steps to expand opportunity, reward hard work (and) invest in an economy so that it grows not just now but in the future."