President Barack Obama showed this weekend that he still has a lot of pull on Capitol Hill, but he seems to be exercising his influence at all the wrong times.
Though Obama can expect an outwardly warm reception from his party when he delivers his State of the Union address tonight, his decision to use the speech to call for a spending freeze, his full-court press for reconfirmation of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and his arms-length approach to much of the politically crippling health care debate have hardly been welcomed by House and Senate Democrats.
Democrats said the White Houses fumbling of the public relations war on health care coupled with the public perception that the governing party took its eye off the countrys economic troubles contributed to the loss of the Senate Democrats filibuster-proof majority in last weeks Massachusetts special election.
In the most general sense, they have had the most to do with establishing the political environment that we now find ourselves in, because they picked health care for their first year, said one senior Senate Democratic aide, who added that the mood of Democrats is not anger, just frustration.
But despite that frustration, Senate Democratic leaders appeared to jump when Obama asked after it became clear Bernankes confirmation to a second four-year term was in peril.
Many Democrats said they were hoping to use Bernankes nomination to send a message to both the White House and the public that they were not satisfied with the administrations handling of the economy. But Obama and other White House officials, in phone calls over the weekend, convinced Democratic leaders and rank-and-filers alike that failing to reconfirm the architect of the federal financial industry bailouts would cause the stock market to tank.
Its not that theyre not focused on the economy. Its just not in a way thats resonating with people, another Senate Democratic aide said of the White House. Even if Bernanke is confirmed, [Senators protests are] useful in that its illustrating to everyone in the White House that we need to redouble our efforts here.
Members were reluctant to publicly criticize the White House or Obama but privately acknowledged a desire to see Obama lead the charge on the economy by changing his advisers, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and chief White House economic adviser Larry Summers.
Asked about his dissatisfaction with the White Houses handling of the economy, the lead opponent of Bernankes nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said: I dont want to go into a long harangue against the president. Right now Im focusing on seeing if we can defeat this nomination and have the president give us a much better nominee who can represent small business and the middle class. Sanders caucuses with Democrats.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who also opposes Bernanke, also declined to take issue with the administration but indicated he is looking for a new approach to the nations fiscal situation.
Ive been focused on this particular nomination, Merkley said. I think you have to have economic leaders that are going to push into, lean into the wind if you will. ... Where we go needs to be an economy built to work for working families.