Stephanie Grace: Obama nod probably a wash for Landrieu

What to make of President Barack Obama’s endorsement of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu for re-election?

It depends. What’s your angle?

No politician is more of a human Rorschach test than the president, and his unexpected endorsement of Mayor Mitch Landrieu this week provided yet another opportunity for pretty much everyone to see his actions through his or her particular prefiltered lens.

To Landrieu’s rivals — supporters of former Judge Michael Bagneris, who is busy trying to mold the mayor’s various critics into a coalition of the aggrieved, as well as much longer-shot NAACP President Danatus King — the announcement reeked of desperation. Landrieu, they whisper, fears losing ground with loyal Democrats and African-American voters, and needed to bring in the big guns to stem the bleeding.

They label the move more about Washington politics — specifically, those of Landrieu’s senator sister — than about local issues and predict it will backfire. Yet they hope to benefit from those politics and quietly welcome the endorsement’s implicit signal to Republicans, a group Bagneris needs in his corner, that they might want to look elsewhere for a candidate.

From the Landrieu perspective, the move is a show of strength and accomplishment, not weakness. It plays to his stature and access, highlights his success in attracting federal support for things like housing and health, and positions him on a higher level than those who hope to take him down.

Sure, the move is aimed at shoring up Democratic and black support, but that’s basic re-election politics, particularly for a white candidate in a majority black city who always has to pay mind such things. And no matter how worried he may or may not be that Bagneris is gaining ground, what better way to stop the bleeding than grabbing the coattails of a president so popular in New Orleans that candidates have been known to compete aggressively for his favor?

The endorsement even helps counter one of Bagneris’ chief complaints about Landrieu, that he can’t work with other politicians and agencies. Of the many fights the mayor has picked during his first term, perhaps the most ill-advised was his attempt to wriggle out of the Police Department consent decree he’d once enthusiastically backed. Yet Obama’s nod suggests Landrieu’s legal fight with the Justice Department has not destroyed what has, overall, been a productive federal-city partnership.

Obama has his angle, too, of course. By endorsing Mitch Landrieu, he sends an unspoken message to New Orleans voters that he supports the family brand. It’s probably the closest he’ll come to reminding Democrats that he needs their support to return Mary Landrieu to the Senate this fall, even as she tries to distance herself from the president as she campaigns throughout the rest of the conservative state. Don’t forget that this president, like his predecessors, wants to protect his party’s seats in Congress, as Republican Joe Cao discovered to his tremendous disappointment back in 2010 when Obama cut an ad for Democrat Cedric Richmond for Congress.

The Obama endorsement wasn’t the only surprise nod of the week. First, a Democratic women’s group, the Independent Women’s Organization, issued a split endorsement, then the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee went all in with Bagneris. Both groups are stacked with political activists and insiders, the sort of people who’ve watched Landrieu’s battles up close and, in some cases, participated in them.

No question, the Democratic Executive Committee endorsement is an embarrassment to the sitting mayor and a mischievous move to get under his thin skin. We’ll know soon enough whether it’s a sign of larger Landrieu fatigue. But in the meantime, consider the fact that in 2010, the same group snubbed Landrieu, then a second-term lieutenant governor, in favor of newcomer Troy Henry. Landrieu went on to trounce Henry, 66 percent to 14 percent.

This, of course, goes to what’s shaping up as a major theme of the election. There’s no question that Landrieu has battled with not only the Obama administration, but with the city’s firefighters over the pension, its judges over the size of the bench and the prospect of a new courthouse, and so on. He’s ticked people off; they’re now going public. The question remains: Do average voters care? And even if they do, which side are they likely to take?

Obama’s endorsement may carry no more weight than those of the local groups; given how well-known he is, odds are that most voters already have a pretty firm opinion. Which makes all the week’s maneuvering, while intriguing, pretty much a wash.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.