Making a down payment on his vow to go all in for Democrats in 2014, President Barack Obama is courting well-heeled donors in California on a two-day fundraising jaunt that requires the president to walk a fine line: Berate Republicans too much, and Obama could put fragile prospects for achieving his second-term goals in jeopardy.
Obama's California swing, which started Wednesday with two fundraisers for House Democrats, kicks off a concerted effort to help his party win back the House and keep its Senate majority next year. It's a mission that, if successful, would improve his playing field and help him secure his legacy during his final two years in office, a lame-duck period in which a president's influence quickly ebbs.
Making his pitch to donors Wednesday night in San Francisco, Obama said he's prepared this year to work with Republicans to pass legislation aimed at gun violence, an immigration overhaul and fiscal stability.
"But, realistically, I'd get a whole lot more done if Nancy Pelosi is speaker of the House," Obama said with the California congresswoman and House Democratic leader at his side.
Obama raised $3.25 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Wednesday night. The committee assists Democratic House candidates. Obama was raising money for the Democratic National Committee on Thursday.
The short-term pitfalls are clear. Obama has spent much of the past month pursuing warmer relations with Republicans in Congress whose votes he needs to enact his agenda. Republicans on the receiving end of Obama's ongoing "charm offensive" — the president will dine with Senate Republicans next week for a second time — say his partisan tone when he leaves Washington makes them question his sincerity when he says he's willing to meet Republicans halfway.
"He's doing a pretty lousy job of it," Reince Priebus, the chair of the Republican Party, said in an interview. "If he was someone who was as conciliatory as he proclaims to be, you would think he would have a few decent relationships with Republicans, but he doesn't. Instead, he spends most of his time campaigning."
White House officials are mindful of the balancing act Obama must carry out to avoid undermining relations with Republican lawmakers when he hits the campaign trail for Democrats.
"The president's appeal to his supporters won't interfere with his continued efforts to work with Republicans to move that agenda through the Congress," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Almost immediately after winning re-election in November, Obama made clear he would put his full weight behind efforts to elect Democrats in the 2014 midterms, upping his commitment from previous years. During Obama's first term, some Democrats complained he didn't do enough to help — especially in 2010, when Democrats lost control of the House.
This time, Democratic officials say, Obama will headline at least 20 fundraisers: six for House Democrats, six for Senate Democrats and two joint House-Senate events, plus another half-dozen or so for the Democratic National Committee, which is still retiring the debt it racked up last year helping Obama win a second term.
Jim Messina, Obama's 2012 campaign manager, personally delivered the commitment for the House fundraisers in February to Rep. Steve Israel, who chairs the House Democrats' campaign committee, said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversations were private.
Obama launched his efforts Wednesday — after a brief stop in Denver to rally support for gun control legislation — with a cocktail reception at the home of former hedge fund manager and climate activist Tom Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor. About 100 donors paid a minimum of $5,000 to attend. The guest list was smaller for a dinner later Wednesday at another private home, but the price for attendance was higher, $32,400 — the maximum individuals may give to a national party committee per year. Israel and Pelosi joined Obama for both events.
The president will continue the fundraising blitz Thursday in the ritzy town of Atherton, where he will attend a $32,400-a-person luncheon near Stanford University, according to an invitation obtained by The Associated Press. He'll also appear at a brunch at the home of philanthropists Marcia and John Goldman, where donors can pay $1,000 to attend or $5,000 for the chance to take a photo with the president. Both events benefit the national Democratic Party.
In his remarks to donors Wednesday, which were closed to cameras but open to a small group of reporters, Obama refrained from lobbing partisan barbs at Republicans, instead imploring donors to get behind candidates who see eye to eye with Obama on issues such as climate change, research spending, public works projects and early childhood education.
"I'm going to need some help," Obama said.
Still, he added: "My intention here is to try to get as much done with the Republican Party over the next two years as I can, because we can't have perpetual campaigns," he said. "I am looking to find areas of common ground with Republicans every single day."
The rhetoric was not so inclusive from Israel, the congressional campaign committee chairman who accompanied Obama to the fundraisers. After Obama spoke and reporters were ushered out of the Getty event, Israel described Republicans as full of "obstruction, chaos, inflexibility and intolerance," according to a campaign committee official who relayed some of his remarks.
Democrats need to pick up 17 seats next year to regain control of the House — no small feat, considering that a president's party tends to lose House seats in the midterms during a second term. In the Senate, Democrats are defending a daunting 21 seats, including seven in largely rural states where Republican Mitt Romney defeated Obama last year. Republicans must flip just six seats to claim the majority.
Vice President Joe Biden, too, is expected to play a major role in helping Democrats defeat their GOP challengers. Israel told supporters at an annual conference last month that Biden has been busy making calls to potential candidates to recruit them to run.
Republican skepticism that Obama is serious about wanting to mend fences with GOP lawmakers was bolstered earlier this year when the president, fresh off his high-intensity re-election, blasted Republicans in campaign-style events for blocking his preferred approach to averting the sequester, the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that kicked in on March 1. Republicans say it felt like the 2012 campaign never ended, making it harder to take Obama's recent outreach at face value.
"I'll admit, it's very difficult to do both. That's why he shouldn't do both," said Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., the vice chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "He needs to put the campaign rhetoric aside, roll up his sleeves and demonstrate a willingness to work with House Republicans on tax reform, entitlement reform and the problems driving our debt."
"I just don't get the sense that his little outreach was anything more than a charade," Griffin added.
Sara Taylor Fagen, the former political director for President George W. Bush, said there's no reason a president can't carry out his duties to his party and his country simultaneously. But she said an administration gets in trouble when the president doesn't strike the right balance or adopts too harsh a tone.
"You have an obligation to help your party win seats. You want to help them win," Fagen said. "You don't necessarily want to draw a lot of attention to the fact you're spending your evening talking about building the party."
Lederman reported from Washington
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