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Obama vows to help Democrats in midterms, including by staying away if necessary

President Obama, struggling with low approval ratings after a dispiriting year of setbacks, conceded in private remarks Wednesday that some fellow Democrats might not want his help in this fall’s elections.

The candid self-appraisal came during a policy retreat with the Senate Democratic caucus at the Washington Nationals’ stadium, part of a flurry of outreach efforts with congressional Democrats this week focused on crafting strategies for the midterms.

“He said he knew he is not popular in some of the states so he would not be offended if he were not invited to visit them this year,” said one senator who requested anonymity to discuss the private meeting. “But he said he could be helpful in some parts of some states.”

Nonetheless, participants said Obama emphasized the importance of keeping Democratic control of the Senate, which is five seats away from a GOP majority. Obama was accompanied at the baseball park by his new legislative-affairs director, Katie Beirne Fallon, and new political adviser John Podesta.

A day earlier, Obama entertained House Democrats for two hours at the White House, with about 10 members of his Cabinet, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, joining the reception.

The meetings come amid rising anxiety among Democrats about the president’s pledge to work around Congress to advance his agenda and the effect his declining popularity might have on the midterms. Long-shot hopes of regaining the House appear to have faded after Obama’s failure to accomplish much of his agenda last year.

In the Senate, Democrats in tough reelection races have begun to distance themselves from Obama. Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska) said in an interview with CNN last week that he is “not really interested in campaigning” with the president and would like to see him alter some of his policies.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), another at-risk Democrat, said before Wednesday’s meeting, “I think the president is more focused on running the country than helping me in my reelection.”

Some Democrats have declined to attend events with Obama when he has visited their states. Landrieu did not join him at a November event on the economy at a New Orleans port, and Sen. Kay Hagan (N.C) snubbed the president last month when he spoke at North Carolina State University.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that Obama “will be doing everything he can to assist Democrats, as he already has.” But Carney said Obama is more keenly focused on rallying Democrats to support the agenda he laid out in his State of the Union address last week.

Tensions within the party were apparent at times during the question-and-answer sessions between lawmakers and the president.

During the event with House members in the East Room, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) told Obama that someone should be fired for the health-care law’s botched rollout in the fall, according to several people who attended the meeting. The moment was made more awkward because Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was among the Cabinet members who mingled with the lawmakers.

“I asked what’s been on my mind for months,” Shea-Porter said in an interview Wednesday. “I don’t think there’s any shock anywhere around the country that somebody should be held accountable and that I would ask that question.”

Shea-Porter is expected to face a strong GOP challenge in New Hampshire. State residents are especially frustrated that only one insurance company is offering coverage this year as part of the new law.

Obama responded that problems with the health-care Web site had been fixed, enrollment was growing steadily and the administration was focused on moving forward, attendees said. “He said the question is what they are going to do from here on out,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who said the president also faced questions about Syria and the administration’s policy on deportations of illegal immigrants.

The president’s inability to pass major legislative initiatives on gun control and immigration reform, along with the partial government shutdown and the rocky launch of his signature health-care law, has eroded public confidence in his leadership, according to recent polls.

In his State of the Union address last week, Obama pledged to apply executive authority more forcefully in the face of congressional opposition to his economic agenda.

Some Democrats have broken publicly with Obama on key priorities, such as establishing free-trade agreements in Asia and Europe. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who met with Obama on Monday for a political strategy session for the midterms, is among those who have rejected the trade deals, which were the subject of discussion at Obama’s meetings with both chambers.

During the House session, Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) pressed the president for details of ongoing trade negotiations. Kaptur requested that members be allowed to see final proposed language for the Trans-Pacific Partnership before lawmakers are asked to approve new fast-track trade authority. Obama was polite, Kaptur said, but “he did not say yes.”

Despite the concerns, several Democrats said they have noticed an improved effort by the White House to keep them informed.

“They have been redoubling their efforts to reach out,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a key White House ally on budget issues. “On the issues I work on with the White House, I’ve always been able to get the person I need right away,” he added.

Rep. Filemon Vela, a freshman lawmaker from South Texas, said he has noticed a significant change. “The last three months have been a whole lot better than the previous ones,” he said.

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.
Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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