Obama Seeks Shared Ground

Posted March 25, 2009 at 6:24pm

President Barack Obama journeyed to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to line up Senate Democrats behind his key priorities, espousing a message of unity while leaving conflict over the details for another day.

According to Congressional and White House sources, Obama’s goal for the meeting was twofold: to counter perceptions of a split between Congressional Democrats and their president, and to give Obama a chance to impress upon Democrats the need to advance his agenda on health care, education, and energy and fiscal discipline.

Obama, sources say, wants to communicate to his Congressional allies that it benefits them politically to demonstrate cooperation and get results — and that their shared values provide a concrete basis for doing so.

The gathering also pointed to an emerging Obama strategy for his cherished initiatives: Keep them floating along by avoiding acrimony and emphasizing that he shares Democratic lawmakers’ goals, while showing flexibility on specifics until the time comes to legislate.

The session followed Obama’s press conference Tuesday evening, when he repeatedly emphasized his top priorities, and a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning by Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, arranged to allow the budget chief to minimize the daylight between Obama’s plan and the House and Senate budget proposals.

Orszag then convened an afternoon meeting at the White House with some of the very same reporters, where he drilled home the message.

A cadre of centrist and conservative Democrats in the Senate had sought to reduce spending and force Congress to find offsets in order to pay for their president’s sweeping policy goals in the health care, education and energy arenas.

But that effort appeared to irritate both the White House and Senate Democratic leaders, since it seemed they were actively stoking the media hubbub over their disagreements with Obama.

Some Senators indicated that Obama’s message emphasized the political pitfalls for Congress if Members push back too forcefully against a popular White House’s agenda.

“He was acknowledging the political reality that when you have a president in your own party that to some extent your political fortunes are going to be intertwined with his,— Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said. “That’s not what he said, but I think that’s what he meant. If he’s perceived as doing well, then I think Democrats are perceived as doing well. … Whereas if he’s having a lot of trouble and not able to pass things, then it’ll look like Democrats are not doing a good job of running the government.—

Senators emerging from the lunchtime powwow said Obama lodged no objections to the Democratic budget plan, which in many ways resembles the president’s but pares back Obama’s total spending, fails to set aside room for Obama’s greenhouse gas emissions cap-and-trade plan and jettisons his middle-class tax credit — among other changes. Reconciliation, in fact, did not come up.

Instead, the president insisted to a largely receptive audience that the Democratic Senators focus on health care, energy, education and fiscal discipline.

“The president was very clear about his priorities,— Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said. “He wanted to communicate that whatever we put together should reflect his core values.—

Nelson said he left with the impression that Obama would give lawmakers some latitude in how they want to legislate in the areas the president specifies.

Still, Pryor said Obama made a point of acknowledging that Congress needs to assert its priorities in the budget debate as well. “He talked about the fact that he understands we’re in a process and everybody has a different role in the process,— Pryor said.

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said the focus was firmly on unity going forward — not just on the budget, but on implementing the priorities included in it, such as tackling health care, climate change, deficit reduction and education.

“We’re going to sink or swim together, and he knows that he’s got to move somewhat in our direction but that we’ve got to move together,— said Schumer, who added that Obama was very “understanding— about the changes made by the Senate Budget Committee.

One senior Senate Democratic aide said Obama’s appearance was designed to both “rally the troops— as well as remind Senators that the popular president can offer them some of his political capital.

Rather than focus on the differences in the future, aides said Democrats would now likely focus on how the budget works for both Obama and conservative Democrats, because it makes room for his priorities on education and health care but still allows centrists to claim a victory at reducing the spending targets.

In fact, even the man who has been the most visible face of Democratic dissent on the Obama budget — Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) — took pains to highlight how his budget plan conforms to Obama’s key priorities and intentions.

“With respect to the budget, we have attempted to preserve — and I think have preserved — the president’s key priorities. That’s what he asked me to do,— Conrad told reporters. “All of those are possible to move forward in the budget resolution that I have written. They are all in deficit-neutral reserve funds, which means those initiatives will have to be paid for, but that was always the president’s intention.—