Obama Tries Three-Front Defense

Posted May 26, 2010 at 6:51pm

When President Barack Obama faces reporters Thursday before heading to Louisiana on Friday, he’ll be going for a hat trick, trying to neutralize attacks on three of the biggest crises facing the nation: illegal immigration, federal spending and the Gulf Coast disaster.

Obama’s efforts to get in front of issues were on prominent display this week, most notably as he scrambled to look more engaged in an unprecedented Gulf cleanup effort that has yet to yield results more than a month after the explosion that caused the oil spill.

Amid growing public outcry over the failed operation, the president will address the issue head-on Thursday in a White House news conference and announce his plan for new offshore oil drilling regulations that impose more stringent safety inspections and permitting requirements.

And after some last-minute schedule changes, Obama is squeezing in a trip to Louisiana on Friday, flying in directly from a previous engagement in Chicago and then back again that night.

The president also took steps this week to blunt criticisms on other issues that continue to dog him: He drew cheers from fiscal conservatives Monday by unveiling legislation that would give him new authority to slash spending; a day later, he embraced a GOP priority by announcing he will seek $500 million in additional border security funds and send 1,200 National Guardsmen to the Mexican border.

But Obama’s overtures don’t appear to be making headway on the Hill, where lawmakers in both parties say his latest moves are more about political posturing than a real effort to enact policies.

“He needs to deal with the Gulf immediately because everyone thinks it will get much worse before it gets better,” one senior House Democratic aide said.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) shot down the idea that Obama has been trying to engage Republicans on any border security or fiscal matters.

“I have seen no indication of that,” Cornyn said. Obama’s border security proposal is “a complete joke,” he added, saying that the president’s track record of working with Republicans shows he is “clearly on a program of discouraging” bipartisanship.

A senior Republican aide agreed, saying: “It’s the same thing he has done with everything. If there’s a problem he’s perceived as a nuisance, he does something to get a headline but doesn’t do anything substantive.”

The aide said it was telling that the president made no mention of his plan to seek additional National Guard troops when he met with Republicans on Tuesday — even though Senators in the meeting with him just an hour earlier specifically called for more troops.

“I imagine they weren’t very happy about that,” the aide said.

Some Democrats said they appreciated Obama’s efforts to find common ground with Republicans on thorny issues.

“For him to try and engage with Republicans … is a worthy goal,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) said.

But not all Democrats were as charitable. Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.) leveled harsh criticism against Obama for seeking border security funds without linking the move to broader immigration reform.

“The Obama administration’s militarization of the border amounts to a submission to the political forces brought by the Republican Party,” Menendez said.

A GOP leadership aide said Obama’s latest moves on border security and federal spending are “too little too late, and it’s a little disingenuous,” and some Democrats agreed.

One senior Democratic aide pointed to widespread unhappiness in the Caucus with the timing of the president’s push for more control over spending, because his proposal came after the supplemental appropriations package came out of committee. The result is that Democrats will have to scramble to try to accommodate him by taking difficult votes to amend the package on the floor.

“You could say they’re trying to get ahead of things … but they’re half a step behind,” the aide said. “They should have done this stuff two weeks ago when this bill was in committee.”

But the president has made some unusual friends with his latest overtures. His call for more border security funding earned him praise from the likes of conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of Obama’s toughest critics on immigration reform.

“The president’s decision is a symbolic change from his usual unenthusiastic approach to border security,” King said. “It is a small step, but in the right direction.”

His efforts on border security may also help to insulate vulnerable House Democrats who have demanded tougher enforcement of immigration laws and a sharper focus on the deficit, while avoiding tough votes on both issues before the November elections.

Obama’s push for more authority to trim the budget “is not always the most popular idea” among House Democrats, but the fact that the president is seeking it now has left fiscal conservatives pleased, an aide to a leading Blue Dog Democrat said.

“To have the weight of the White House behind an idea that you actually want to achieve” goes a long way, the aide added.

Arizona Democrats ­— including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who has been hammering Obama for months over the need for more National Guard deployments to her state’s southern border — are now praising the president for fulfilling their request, even though they have been calling for more than double the number of troops he is seeking.

“It’s important to focus on fixing the problem and not the politics,” Giffords said. “The reality is that having National Guard troops immediately deployed … is critical.”