Obama's focus on financial rules, Supreme Court opinion could aid Democrats

David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser, says a recent Supreme Court ruling could bring about
David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser, says a recent Supreme Court ruling could bring about "a corporate takeover of our elections." (William B. Plowman/nbc Via Associated Press)
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By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010

Despite holding high-profile meetings last week on energy and immigration reform, President Obama will focus the next few months on two issues that could help his party in November: stronger financial regulations and ways to mitigate a Supreme Court ruling that allows direct corporate spending on behalf of candidates.

Those priorities, although still difficult to achieve in a partisan Congress, are highly popular with the Democratic base and could force Republicans to choose between supporting the president or defending Wall Street when much of the country blames big business for the economic decline.

Such an agenda will give the rest of the legislative calendar, compressed by the midterm election season, a distinctly political cast. It will also push energy and immigration reform, two of Obama's most far-reaching campaign pledges, into the next Congress, which is likely to be more influenced by the Republican opposition.

Obama has been criticized for running an administration where policymaking is too removed from political considerations, a gap seen clearly in drawn-out efforts to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to pass health-care legislation. Even some within the administration's senior ranks have leveled the critique privately.

In public appearances, Obama has asserted that his agenda is free of political calculation, drawing a contrast with a Washington culture he campaigned to change. Speaking last week in St. Charles, Mo., Obama said, "We've seen years, decades, where Washington just puts off dealing with our toughest challenges because it's too hard, because we don't know how the politics works."

But he appears to be doing just that. His post-health-care agenda, described by senior administration officials publicly and privately last week, is far more attuned to the politics of an election year during which his party will be fighting to protect majorities in the House and Senate.

"The president and the people around him are increasingly aware of the political consequences of having pursued comprehensive health care for an entire year," said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as national policy adviser in the Clinton administration.

"They believe, and I believe they're right, that Congress's appetite, particularly the Democrats' appetite, for more heavy lifts that will divide the party and antagonize a portion of their constituency is very low," he said. "They want, between now and November, to seamlessly align policy and politics because the alternative would be the certainty of very large losses."

Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), said the administration's agenda is "surprising, given what citizens are asking for, which is job creation."

"He told us in his State of the Union that priorities Number 1, 2 and 3 are jobs," Stewart said. "I don't think trying to overturn a Supreme Court decision is going to create any."

The White House meetings last week were intended to show a president confident in his ability to secure health-care reform and already pivoting to the next big item on his agenda.

But although Obama expressed a commitment to work for energy and immigration reform, according to the meetings' participants, he did not pledge to take the lead this year. The legislative calendar effectively ends at the August recess, when the campaign season takes over.

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