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Roll Call

Democrats Feel Left in Dark

Some on the Left Say the Obama Administration’s Communication Strategy Often Cuts Them Out

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Peter DeFazio (right) noted that there has been little contact or outreach from the White House to lawmakers on many major issues in Congress.

The White House is struggling to win over Hill Democrats who crave more attention, question whether they fit into the administration's media strategy and believe they already are underused on the campaign trail with the 2012 elections kicking into full gear.

In front of the cameras, President Barack Obama has recently given Democrats what they've wanted all along: a call to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, to protect entitlements and to champion the middle class. But behind the scenes, Democrats say, administration officials have been quicker to relay information to the media than they have to Congress, and poor relations between White House legislative staff and Democratic Members have not helped matters.

The gap in communication between a president and Members of Congress in his own party is not uncommon. The lack of advance notice on the details of Obama's proposals can often be chalked up to a White House communications team wary of leaks. Some Democrats also said White House staff outreach was much better under former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel — a former Representative — than it is under current Chief of Staff William Daley.

"Since Rahm left, the only way many of us hear anything is leadership goes down to the White House and they come back to Caucus and tell us what was said," Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) noted. "But there's very little direct contact, very little outreach on any of the major issues we've been dealing with in this Congress. I would say it's either indifference or irrelevance or whatever. I don't know what the point is."

DeFazio particularly complained about the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, which is tasked with lobbying Members to vote with the president as well as with dealing with Member requests for administration action.

With the president's approval rating hovering in the low to mid-forties and with him traveling to swing states to push his jobs plan, some on the Hill believe it would behoove the administration to reach out and coordinate more with his friends in the Capitol.

Obama traveled Thursday to Ohio to promote his jobs bill during an event at Brent Spence Bridge, which spans the border of the Buckeye State and Kentucky. Sen. Sherrod Brown, also up for re-election in 2012, said he knew the administration had been considering the location for quite some time but did not learn of the final decision until it was reported. In a brief interview, the Ohio Democrat expressed some frustration that he couldn't help Obama in his own backyard.

"They could do better when they're coming to our states, which they come to my state a lot," Brown said. "They could do better when they come to Ohio — I don't want to sound whiny about this, so I'm reluctant to say much here, but I can help them with location and setup and all that. ... I wish they consulted us more, but that's not how they run the White House."

He added, "I think they fall a little short there."

Brown's situation is not unique. When asked whether such an occurrence was commonplace, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide lamented that calls to the White House about events were often met with opaque answers, if at any all.

"There's been a fair share of grumbling over the years over a lack of coordination in events in the state," the aide said. "You can find plenty of other Members' offices that will make that same complaint. ... Any routine call to the White House from the Hill to ask for advance info about events or whatever is usually met with vague generalities that fail to answer our questions."

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) added that White House outreach has been inconsistent and ill-timed, noting the legislative affairs team seems at times to have not done its homework before calling him to lobby him on issues.

"I've gotten few requests from the administration to vote their way," Rahall said. "On the issues I did not hear from them on, I did not have an early position announced. The one or two times they did come to me, I had already, I think, publicly expressed my opinion. I was with them anyway."

In July, the president basically worked around Hill Democrats to strike a deal with Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to avert a default on the nation's debt.

Still, some Members said they had positive working relationships with the White House and its legislative affairs staff.

"During health care [reform], in particular, I worked very closely with them to make sure that many concerns that different Members raised were promptly addressed," Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) said. "I will say they've been dealt kind of a tough hand. The executive branch is a big organization."

Plus, Democrats' reaction to Obama's deficit reduction plan last Monday would have been even more positive had they known what was in it before Obama hit the airwaves.

By most accounts, Members and staffers on the Hill were not briefed on the details of the president's $4.4 trillion plan until after it was discussed with reporters that Sunday night, published and then outlined in Monday's speech. Critics said that left the door open to news stories the following day that Republicans were united against the plan while Democrats were divided on how to proceed.

"We have a tendency to read what the president sends before reacting — so it takes us a little bit longer," quipped Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) when asked whether Democrats are struggling to unite around a message when information isn't flowing to the Hill in advance.

Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee Chairman Mark Begich (Alaska) noted: "On these major issues, it would be to the White House's advantage to keep us informed as they develop them and put them on the table and not wait until the last minute. ... It's getting better, but the more communication you have between the White House and us, the better off it's going to be. It doesn't mean we'll always agree with them, but at least we'll know what they're doing."

The former leadership aide cited the weekly Monday briefing calls in which top administration staffers often opened their conversation with top Hill staffers, "I'm sure you've read this in the newspaper, the president is going to do X, Y and Z, and we'll send you talking points."

If the change in course over the past few weeks is any indication, however, it's possible the White House will continue to build bridges back to their allies. Sometimes it just takes a dramatic political event to shock order back into place — or perhaps in this case, a few dramatic political events.

"To a certain degree, I think it is [common]," Brendan Daly, former communications director for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and current executive vice president at Ogilvy Washington, said about divisions between Democrats. "I know there was a lot of grumbling from Democrats when [Bill] Clinton was president, but the difference is that it was probably only true in the first two years of Clinton's administration. But after they lost the Congress, they were humbled a bit and starting talking to people more," he added.

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