Hill Awaiting Obama’s Moves

Posted June 24, 2008 at 7:06pm

With the clock ticking fast toward November, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has yet to begin coordinating his presidential campaign with the Hill to advance the Democratic Party’s message and strategy. Regular meetings between his operatives and House and Senate Democratic leaders have not taken place, official liaisons have not been dispatched, and a blueprint for Members to follow in the few weeks remaining this Congress has not been defined.

But sources close to Obama’s campaign say the synchronization is in the works, and within coming days the presumptive nominee will install his Congressional outreach team and set up a plan for the five months leading up to the election. Most of that should be firmly installed by July 7, when Congress returns from its weeklong recess.

“Our campaign is engaging Members of Congress in our efforts not only to win traditional battleground states but also to extend our mandate to bring change by helping us put new states in play and electing downballot Democrats along the way,” Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said Tuesday. “In areas where they have issue expertise and in regions where they have roots, Members of Congress are assisting our efforts through the media and with events in targeted communities. They know from firsthand experience that when it comes to the war and the economy, John McCain would offer a third term of President Bush’s failed policies,” he said, referring to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

Obama’s campaign is keeping many of the details under wraps, but sources familiar with his plans say he is likely to tap a team of advisers to spearhead outreach with the House and Senate, led by senior adviser Pete Rouse and rounded out by the his Congressional relations coordinator, Michael Robertson, and senior adviser Michael Strautmanis. The campaign also is expected to hire a senior House staffer to help work with Democrats in that chamber, with the leading candidate being John Michael Gonzalez, chief of staff to Illinois Rep. Melissa Bean (D).

And beginning next month, Obama plans to establish regular briefings with lawmakers on policy and politics that will run through the fall, enhance House and Senate surrogate opportunities in the media, and enlist Members to work on his behalf in their home states. Democrats anticipate that those efforts, along with other leadership-based strategy sessions, will ensure the party has a unified message heading into November that highlights Obama’s platform.

Obama seems to be taking an unconventional approach to engaging his fellow House and Senate Democrats, at least in the three weeks since he secured the Democratic Party’s nomination.

The Illinois Democrat has met with lawmaker groups, including the Congressional Hispanic and Black caucuses, and his top strategist, David Axelrod, has given face time to Senate Democrats. But he has bypassed many of immediate must-dos with the Hill, including sitting down with the entire Democratic House and Senate caucuses.

Rather, Obama has been more focused on organizing his 50-state strategy, getting his field operation in place and taking over the Democratic National Committee. Sources say most of his outreach to the Hill has been informal and unstructured, and concerns could materialize if their candidate fails to put in place a coordinated strategy by early July, when Members return.

“There’s a lot of restlessness in the House, and they’re really waiting for the campaign to step up and start engaging in the House,” one Democratic aide said. “People here feel the sooner the better.”

But another Democratic aide disputed that assessment. “That’s absolutely not the case that I’ve heard from anyone,” the aide said. “This campaign just beat the most vaunted political machine in the history of Democratic politics. I think they’re doing just fine, and whenever it makes sense, that coordination will begin in earnest.”

Obama officially declared he had wrapped up the Democratic nomination three weeks ago, on June 3. In 2004, it took Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) more than a month after claiming his party’s nod to officially announce that he was hiring lobbyist David Castagnetti to head up Congressional relations. But that was in April of that year, thanks to the significantly shorter Democratic primary season in the last presidential election.

McCain also was slow to put in place his Hill strategy. But in many ways, McCain could afford to take his time since he was the apparent nominee in March, three months before Obama. McCain tapped his Congressional liaison, John Green, on April 1, and since then, weekly GOP Member briefings have been taking place, as well as daily phone calls between the campaign, House and Senate leaders and the Bush White House.

A source close to McCain’s campaign said the GOP’s coordination has proved critical, not only to ensure party unity but also to troubleshoot potential political pitfalls. In some cases, it’s been seamless, such as when McCain announced his support for ending the federal ban on offshore drilling and President Bush followed the next day with a similar announcement.

“They do need to know what we’re doing, and we need to know what they are doing so we’re not stepping all over each other,” the source close to the McCain campaign said. “I don’t see how you not do it, even if you aren’t in lock step.”

The spotty coordination between Obama and the Hill has included issue-based strategy talks between senior staff of the campaign, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Other top Democratic lawmakers, such as Obama’s Illinois colleagues Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel, also have led efforts to enlist House and Senate Democrats to promote Obama’s candidacy in the media, on the floor and on the ground in their home states.

Durbin said Tuesday that each cycle the Democratic presidential candidate has gotten more sophisticated at employing House Members and Senators to promote his candidacy. Obama, Durbin said, already has taken it to a new level by engaging greater numbers of lawmakers in new and expanded roles — far beyond what’s been done before.

“The level of interest is so high,” Durbin said. “We don’t need a grand meeting with 50 or 49 Democratic Senators. It may be better to do this in a targeted way.”

Durbin acknowledged that the formal coordination as it’s been seen in the past has yet to occur between Obama and Congressional Democrats. But he also noted that what’s being done — enlisting Members to help in their states and speak on his behalf on national and local media — is in effect. Besides, Durbin said, Obama can do a lot more to promote the party and his candidacy by setting up a cross-country organization.

“We want him on the trail,” Durbin said. “We’d rather have him in key states.”

Likewise, Pelosi said she was unfazed by the lack of coordination. “We’re on course to do what we set out to do but with a bigger bullhorn to speak about it out there. As of now, we don’t have a formal process to do that,” she told reporters Tuesday at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast.

She said that “while we don’t have coordination just yet,” her chief of staff, John Lawrence, has been talking to Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. “That is the channel of communication that we have. We’re not isolated from one another,” she said.

Obama already has penned fundraising appeals for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But Pelosi said joint fundraising appearances with House candidates are not yet on the books. “We have made some requests for Sen. Obama to make some overtures to friends to help us raise some of the resources that we need to raise, but we haven’t gotten down to the level of scheduling,” she said.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who backed Obama’s candidacy earlier this year, said that while it’s been a few weeks since his candidate claimed the nomination, he sees no reason to be alarmed. He said it always takes time “to get the coordination in place” and there has yet to be an instance where anything has “fallen through the cracks.”

“I want him to spend time where he doesn’t have the votes, rather than where he does have the votes,” Nelson said.

Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), an Obama supporter, added, “Certainly we need to have a regular basis for hearing from the Obama campaign” to discuss coordinating messages and agendas. But Davis said it was important for the campaign to focus first on shoring up ties to the DNC, DSCC and DCCC.

House and Senate leadership aides say most of the Democratic coordination has been specific and issue-based. Reid in particular put together a message road map for his Senators last month to ensure the Conference had a strategy for the weeks leading up to the July Fourth recess — giving their presidential candidate enough time to organize his general election plan.

“It’s not like we have been without things to talk about,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide. “We knew if they didn’t end [the primary] until June 2, we knew it would take them the month of June to get their house in order.”

“We’ll get there,” added a House Democratic leadership aide. “Some of this is still being worked out. But we’re all on the same page.”