On the same day that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was taking steps to jump-start bipartisan talks to avert a government shutdown, President Barack Obama was in Florida trying to jump-start something else: his 2012 re-election campaign.
While there may be 609 days to go until the presidential election, Obama has already begun reverting to campaign mode — and some Democrats are starting to worry that their most important ally won’t be there when they need him the most on Capitol Hill.
The president has made noticeable overtures in the past week to remind people that he is as much the commander in chief as he is a candidate up for re-election: Tonight, Obama is heading a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dinner with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in Boston; on Friday, he headlined separate fundraisers in Miami for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. During those events, he ticked off his accomplishments from the past two years and said his supporters were the reason he has seen success.
“Because of your help, we yanked this economy out of what could have been a Great Depression. Because of your help, we passed the historic health care bill. Because of your help, we ended ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ... That’s because of you,” he told the crowd.
“I need you to do it again,” Obama continued. “We don’t just want your money. We want your time and we want your energy. We want your ideas. We want you passionate about this being important.”
A few days earlier, the president made his biggest concession yet to Republicans on health care reform when, at a lunch for the National Governors Association, he unexpectedly announced that he backs legislation to give states flexibility in rolling out reforms. Obama also aligned himself with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — a potential GOP presidential rival — in his support for state flexibility.
“I agree with Mitt Romney, who recently said he’s proud of what he accomplished on health care in Massachusetts and supports giving states the power to determine their own health care solutions. He’s right. Alabama is not going to have exactly the same needs as Massachusetts or California or North Dakota,” Obama said Monday.
The president’s fresh focus on his re-election comes as Congress is looking for help negotiating a budget deal that if left unresolved would force a government shutdown. Both parties have put forward proposals to keep the government funded for the rest of the fiscal year, but the two sides are about $50 billion apart and nobody appears willing to give.
Reid announced Friday that he will try to break the impasse by holding test votes today on the competing Republican and Democratic spending plans. Both are expected to fail, but he said he hopes they can serve as a starting point for negotiations.
“We’ll end up back at square one” once the votes are held, Reid said. He urged both sides to “come together, negotiate in good faith.”
But neither party has shown a willingness to give ground after the votes. And with the clock ticking on the current short-term continuing resolution, Democrats — who themselves are divided on levels of spending cuts — are anxiously looking to the White House for guidance.
A senior House Democratic aide said Democrats were “at least somewhat” relieved when Obama dispatched Vice President Joseph Biden to meet with Hill leaders last week try to hash out a budget blueprint. But that meeting ended without a breakthrough, and with Biden now on a weeklong trip in Europe, Democrats’ concerns about the lack of White House involvement may intensify.
“After these votes fail and with Biden gone, it might re-up,” the aide said.
A senior Senate Democratic aide concurred that Biden’s role in last week’s talks helped to allay concerns but said many are watching to see how and to what degree Obama engages over the next two weeks.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney sought to tamp down the idea that the White House will be absent from the budget talks.
“There are continued conversations at the staff level that have continued through the weekend and through today, and will continue as the Senate begins to take action on the bills that are on the table, which, I think, will be an important milestone as we make progress in these negotiations,” he said during a Monday briefing.
Carney also maintained that Biden would be reachable in the coming days if necessary.
“In the era of modern communications, it’s certainly possible that the vice president could get on the phone with anyone here in Washington who needed to speak with him,” he said.
Meanwhile, Obama is leaning on another form of communication to show his engagement on the issue. In an e-mail sent Monday by the Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America, which the president has used to rally his base, organizers call on Obama’s backers to voice support for a spending plan that reflects Democratic priorities and to reject the sweeping cuts proposed by Republicans.
“The president is calling on both sides to come together, but it’s up to us to show Republicans in Congress that we have his back,” the e-mail reads. “As negotiations heat up, we all need to speak out to make sure they get the message. Stand with the president by signing your name today, and OFA volunteers will deliver your signatures to House Republicans and make sure your voice is not ignored.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.