President Obama has embarked on the most intense effort of his administration to improve his notoriously poor relations with Congress, but he is doing so while wielding a political club behind his back, seeking peace while preparing for war.
The unusual approach will be evident Wednesday when Obama meets first with House Republicans, a group he has identified as his chief obstacle to legislative success. Just hours later, he will address leaders of Organizing for Action (OFA), his potent campaign organization now retooled to help secure his domestic agenda by battling Republicans.
The outreach-with-an-edge, captured by two very different events on a single day, is an extension of Obama’s emerging strategy to promote gun-control initiatives, immigration legislation and populist economic measures inside and outside the Beltway.
It is a mix that some senior advisers acknowledge did not always come together in the president’s first term. But now, those advisers say, they have a vast and still-energized campaign organization at Obama’s disposal and a domestic legacy to secure.
“The president believes that personal engagement is important, that relationships are important, that conversation and discussion are important,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday. “The president believes this is an important process, and he has enjoyed his consultations thus far.
Obama, a sometimes isolated figure during his first term, has been criticized for not forming more politically useful personal relationships on the Hill. His senior advisers say expectations are low that the current outreach effort will change many Republican minds. But if nothing else, some inside the White House said, it could clarify for the public GOP positions that could prove unpopular in the midterm elections at the end of 2014.
“The troubling part of the president’s outreach is that it is so infrequent that it can rightly lead to cynicism about his motives,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio.). “We’re taking him at his word that this is a good-faith effort. But the proof will be in the follow-through.”
Asked if Obama’s decision to speak to OFA hours after courting House Republicans could undermine his outreach effort, Buck said: “We’ll see.”
After often failing in past talks with House Republican leaders, the president is focusing his current efforts on the party’s rank and file, who might break with GOP leadership. Republicans will be reminded of that strategy when Obama speaks Wednesday night to OFA, where he will probably make a case for immigration legislation, gun control, climate change, a minimum-wage increase and other policies that have popular support.
Although its leaders insist that the organization is not partisan and has no interest in legislative outcomes, the only advertising the group has run so far was directed at 13 House members, all of them Republican. The theme of the ads was Obama’s firearms initiative.
“The best shot now at getting anything done is to build from the middle out in the House — not through the leadership,” said a senior administration official, who described internal deliberations on the condition of anonymity. “I wouldn’t say this is a change in strategy, but it is a new approach due to a change in circumstances.”
The confidence that comes with a second term — and the realization that the election did not change the partisan dynamics in Washington — are shaping Obama’s new outreach effort. His scheduled appearance before the full House GOP caucus Wednesday will be his first official meeting with the group in nearly two years.
But White House officials are also mindful of the political fallout that has followed across-the-board federal spending cuts, known as sequestration. Obama’s public approval rating has dipped since the reductions began this month, according to recent polls.
Some of the same House Republicans the president will address are already feeling the sharper edge of OFA.
“Congress failed to compromise — with some Republicans insisting on protecting tax loopholes for the wealthiest Americans (seriously),” OFA Executive Director Jon Carson wrote in one e-mail to supporters last week. “Because of it, a series of devastating budget cuts known as the sequester are now in effect.”
When Obama enters the St. Regis Hotel for his Wednesday dinner speech to 100 or so OFA founders, he’ll encounter familiar faces from the campaign, many of whom now staff the group. It is chaired by Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager and a White House official in the first term, who will address the “founders summit” meeting earlier in the day. He is expected to stress that the group will be oriented around the issues at the core of the president’s agenda, rather than electoral politics.
That line is similar to the one deployed by Republican strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie in 2010 when they founded Crossroads GPS, another nonprofit organization that collects checks of unlimited size to fund its politically oriented advertising budget.
OFA announced last week that it will not accept donations from corporations as originally planned and that it will disclose the identities of major donors and the amounts given. Critics note that that arrangement still puts the president in the position of soliciting large checks from wealthy individuals and unions.
Obama’s willingness to accept big checks under these circumstances appalled some reformers, who saw it as a betrayal of his oft-stated promise to change Washington’s pay-to-play money culture.
Others say it is simply an acknowledgment of the real requirements for political players in the years since the Supreme Court granted corporations and unions the right to make political donations in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Asked this week if Obama had “given up on campaign finance reform,” Carney responded, “No.”
“One thing that he’s adamant about in the wake of the unfortunate Citizens United decision is that at the very least, Republicans ought to go along with disclosure,” he said.
Although Wednesday’s meeting will be attended by donors from Hollywood, Silicon Valley and New York, OFA insiders say fundraising for such an ambitious organization will be one of its biggest challenges.
Initially, major donors received a separate invitation to Wednesday’s event telling them that they must donate $50,000 per person to be part of the summit. Now, OFA officials say there is effectively a sliding admission price, with many volunteers paying nothing.
The mix of wealthy donors, campaign luminaries and election staffers may undermine what OFA leaders say is a key message for the meeting: that the group is not an election-related organization.
“If you want to help Democrats win elections, go to the DNC,” said one operative who is helping to launch OFA and who spoke about the group’s goals on the condition of anonymity. “This organization is committed to supporting the president’s agenda.”
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