When President Barack Obama solicits advice Wednesday from his party’s senators, the voices of some Democrats may come through louder than others.
Of the 53 Democratic senators, it’s the nearly two dozen facing re-election this year who are causing jitters for Obama and the party. With control of the Senate at stake, many of those Democrats are actively seeking ways to distance themselves from a president who is deeply unpopular in their home states.
After publicly exhibiting his goals for the year in his State of the Union address last week, Obama is making the pitch in more intimate settings now. A day after hosting House Democrats in the East Room, Obama will travel to the baseball stadium where the Washington Nationals play and where Senate Democrats are holding an annual private summit.
Obama is getting some help from former President Bill Clinton, who is also expected to address the group. In addition to being one of his party’s top political strategists, Clinton remains popular in many of the conservative-leaning states where Obama has struggled.
With prospects for capturing the House this year in doubt, Democrats have intensified their focus on the Senate, where their tenuous majority will be toppled in November if they lose more than five seats – out of 21 they are defending. Although Obama has had to rein in aspirations for ambitious second-term legislation due to Republican control of the House, his final years in office would be even more constrained were Democrats to lose the Senate.
Sensitive to the fact that many of Democrats’ toughest races this year are in conservative-leaning states that voted against Obama in 2012, the White House and Democratic leadership so far have given wide latitude to Democrats who have publicized their disagreements with Obama. But the criticism also serves as a nagging reminder that Obama’s ability to aid fellow Democrats this year is limited.
“I want him up in Alaska so I can show him where his policies haven’t worked,” said Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, whose re-election race is one of the toughest for Democrats this year. “I’ll drag him up there to show him what he needs to be doing. I don’t need him campaigning for me.”
Obama’s session with senators Wednesday will focus not on the election but on his legislative agenda, including an unemployment insurance extension, a minimum wage hike and an expansion of the earned income tax credit, White House officials said.
“It’s part of an overall approach, running up to and in the wake of the State of the Union address, where the president is meeting with Democrats who share his priorities and vision when it comes to taking action to strengthen the middle class and to provide ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Still, the White House has taken steps to show it is keenly attuned to the midterm dynamic that looms over every decision lawmakers will make this year. On Monday, Obama brought Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., his campaign chairman and the head of the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee to the White House to talk strategy for 2014. And barely a week ago, Obama resurrected the White House political office that he disbanded in 2011, tasking top adviser David Simas with overseeing a team that will look out for the needs of Democratic candidates.
For some Democrats, it’s “Obamacare” that poses the clearest threat as Republicans vow to use the unpopular law as a cudgel in their campaigns against Democrats who voted for it. Speaking to House Democrats on Tuesday, Obama took full responsibility for what didn’t go right with the rollout of the HealthCare.gov enrollment website and said the focus now should be on law’s benefits and the millions getting covered, said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., who attended the meeting.
For other Democrats, niche issues like energy that acutely affect their states may play an outsize role in their campaigns. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana was one of five Democrats who joined Republicans on Tuesday at a rare bipartisan news conference to call on Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil on its way from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast.
Landrieu said in addition to talking to Obama about America’s energy resurgence, she planned to urge Obama to support her push to delay a huge rate hike for flood insurance – a politically potent issue in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana.
“I’m hoping to convince him that if his administration could be a little more enthusiastic, it would be helpful not just to me and Louisiana, but to the whole country,” she said.