Congressional Democrats want to see more of the newly aggressive side of President Barack Obama that they've witnessed in the past week — even as some grumble about the details of his jobs plan and remain worried he will trade away their priorities in another high-stakes deal with the GOP.
Obama's $447 billion jobs package may not get passed in its current form — especially his plan for $467 billion in assorted tax increases on the wealthy and corporations to pay for it — but Democrats said he's finally taking their advice, going on the road and selling something of his own.
"The president's got to go out and talk about it every day, like he's doing in Columbus," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said of the president's trip to his home state Tuesday. Brown said voters don't want to hear about more fights over spending cuts.
Over the past two and a half years, Democrats in the Capitol have grumbled that Obama's legislative strategy has been too timid, with the president shying away from supporting specific bills and hiding behind calls for bipartisanship and compromise. And they've said he has often started out negotiations with Republicans by signaling too soon what he is willing to give up.
This time, Democrats said, they feel Obama at least has something he can sell to his base, even though they have no illusions that the plan will reach his desk without significant modifications.
"I feel like we're in a better place now than before, when we didn't feel like there was any strategy at all," a senior Senate Democratic aide said.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said the plan still includes too many tax cuts and not enough spending on infrastructure to directly create jobs.
"He's moving in the right direction, although I wish it had happened a lot sooner," Harkin said.
But the mistrust of the White House still lingers. Senate Democrats remain wary that Obama will continue to run against Congress, instead of Republican obstruction.
"Before the jobs plan, people were really upset because they felt like he was running against Congress and everyone up here was equally responsible," the aide said. "I hope they really reconsidered their strategy a bit with the summer they had," the aide said, noting Obama's eroding poll ratings.
While some Democrats — such as Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) — don't favor the tax hikes Obama proposed to pay for his plan, that "Robin Hood" approach to public policy at least unites his somewhat-dispirited base, others said.
But the White House didn't do itself any favors when the president undermined his own message that he wanted Congress to pass his whole package immediately. He told Latino reporters Monday that he will sign pieces of his package if they are sent to his desk. That had some Democrats seeing a repeat of earlier cave-ins to the GOP and fearing that Obama will simply acquiesce to a tax-cuts-only package. The White House quickly tried to downplay the comments.
"We're not in a negotiation to break up the package," Obama's top re-election strategist, David Axelrod, said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "It's not an a la carte menu."
House Democrats, who have felt most burned by the president's past strategic missteps, continue to have mixed feelings about Obama and his jobs rollout, calling it a promising move but short of the sweeping housing market proposals for which they were hoping. And while they applaud Obama for taking his plan on the road, House Democrats are coming out with their own economic proposals to apply pressure on the White House to hold its ground during negotiations with Congressional Republicans.
"We think it's a wonderful first step, we'd like to strengthen it and make it bigger," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said Tuesday at a press conference for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which introduced its own plan.
Rep. Jim Moran said Obama, knowing he'd have a tough time getting anything through the GOP-controlled House, should have gone with an even bigger plan that catered to the base rather than attempting a bipartisan deal.
"I don't think that he would get anything through the majority in the House, if it was $4 billion instead of $447 billion, because they're just not going to do anything to make him look good," the Virginia Democrat said. "So if that's the case, why not go for what you think is the best plan? And if that's the case, it's not as big and as bold as it needs to be and ought to be."
Moran said the White House has not coordinated enough with House Democrats this year, but a Democratic leadership aide maintained that the administration has been more helpful on the messaging front as of late.
Grijalva said that coordination will be put to the test "when the Republicans offer what they're going to accept."
"I hope we don't see more of what we've seen in the past," Grijalva said, alluding to the debt limit deal that many Democrats are still embittered over. "If we're going to be asked to swallow bitter pills and there's no sweetener in there, then I think it's going to be difficult for us."
While Obama's jobs plan has provided a fresh boost for Democratic messaging, the key unifier for the Caucus is still opposition to the GOP, one House Democratic aide said.
"We will take this jobs plan over the GOP's non-existent job plan any day of the week," the aide said. "House Dems have been beating the drum on jobs for a while and we are very happy the president has joined the fight."
Republicans dismissed the jobs package Tuesday as politicking instead of a serious plan to get something done.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), after holding his fire for days, ripped the plan. "All he's doing is just proposing a hodgepodge of retread ideas aimed at convincing people a temporary fix is really permanent ... and then daring Republicans to vote against it," McConnell said.
"You gotta look at it as a campaign document," said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), noting that the president gave a speech talking all about bipartisanship and is now making campaign-style speeches across the country.
Grassley predicted that whatever happens would ultimately be done via the super committee.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a member of the panel, predicted that pieces of the jobs agenda would make it into an overall package. Kerry noted that many on the panel want to go well beyond the $1.5 trillion goal set in the legislation that created the committee: "I don't think anybody expects it to pass en bloc. So I think the issue is going to be, what parts, if any of it, are going to be cherry-picked."