Senate Dems seek more Obama help

Senate Democrats want President Obama to take a more hands-on role in legislative battles next year, when Republicans will have additional clout on Capitol Hill.

Democratic lawmakers say Obama could have done more to connect his legislative agenda to the concerns of voters — a shortcoming the president himself has admitted. 

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Some Democrats expect Obama to get engaged sooner in legislative debates and to make himself more available to members of Congress, who keep close tabs on the views of their constituents.

“It’s about leading early on in the battles to be had in the days ahead, and it’s about getting out there,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), who handled political strategy for Senate Democrats for the past two years as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Voicing the view of other leading Democrats, Menendez believes Obama needs to travel around the country more frequently, holding town-hall meetings to sell his policy vision. Only at the end of the 2010 campaign season did he start holding a series of “backyard discussions” in an attempt to connect with voters.

“He’s a great communicator, but you have to be able to communicate when you’re ahead of the curve, and not behind the curve. I think you’ll see a lot more of that,” Menendez said of Obama.

His remarks came in advance of a nearly three-hour meeting of Senate Democrats in the Capitol Visitor Center on Wednesday to take stock of their political standing and policy goals heading into the difficult 2012 election cycle.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) has said White House political strategists waited too long to deploy Obama in the healthcare and stimulus debates, allowing Republicans to frame the issues as they pleased.

“They lost the communications battle on both major initiatives, and they lost it early,” Rendell told The New York Times. “We didn’t use the president in either stimulus or healthcare until we had lost the spin battle.”

Democratic senators and aides say they expect Obama to play a bigger role in coordinating the policy and political agenda for 2012, when he too faces reelection.

“Hopefully he’ll be more engaged with Congress,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who will serve as chairman of the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee in the 112th Congress. “Spending more time with us — and both sides, not just Democrats.

“We need to know where he is and where he’s going,” said Begich. “But also be listening. It’s one thing just to direct — listening is also part of the equation.”

Senate Democrats acknowledge that they too — and not just the president — need to do a better job of promoting their agenda.

The Wednesday gathering was designed to improve communication within the conference, gain a better understanding of Democrats’ ideas and priorities and create a broader narrative about policy goals.

While Senate Democrats hold conference meetings every Tuesday afternoon and Democratic Policy Committee meetings every Thursday afternoon, some lawmakers worry there has not been enough internal communication.

On Monday, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced he would overhaul the chamber’s communications operation.

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He has combined the Democratic Policy Committee with the Democratic war room to create a new office in charge of tailoring the legislative agenda to the concerns of voters. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) will lead the revamped policy and communications shop.

“We’ll be able to prioritize bills that members can use to tailor messages for people back home so they can present winning messages and pick the right battles with Republicans,” said a Senate Democratic aide.

Some Democrats say they were uncertain of how strongly Obama supported a healthcare public option or how broadly he wanted to address energy reform and climate change.

“I think the White House knows we fell short in explaining to the public what we’re doing,” said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.). “We’ll wait and see what the White House and the president decides is the best way forward, but probably a narrative and a clear indication of where the country is going would be appropriate over this next two-year time frame.”

Obama has conceded he spent too much time in 2009 and 2010 focusing on policymaking at the expense of political salesmanship. As a result, the healthcare reform bill that Democrats thought would become a popular success fell flat with voters, costing Democrats on Election Day.

Democratic candidates — especially in the House — scrambled to distance themselves from the landmark legislation, which Republicans portrayed as a costly new entitlement and government takeover of healthcare.

Some lawmakers also expect Obama to retrench his legislative ambitions by breaking up reforms into smaller bills and finding common ground with Republicans on issues such as school vouchers.

Udall said it would be smart of Democrats to “break up some of the legislative initiatives into more understandable pieces.”

He said energy legislation could be broken into smaller reforms such as expanding transmission capacity, investing in nuclear research and developing a national renewable electricity standard.

“All of those are understandable,” Udall said. “But it all has to be tied to the economy and job creation. That’s the message of the election.”

A Senate Democratic aide predicted Obama “is not going to do as many big things, he’s going to do smaller stuff.”

The aide also predicted Obama would look to find common ground with Republicans, even if it meant angering Democratic constituencies such as labor unions.

“On energy and education, there are places where he is a non-traditional Democrat,” said the aide.

But many Democrats are skeptical whether Republicans will cede any ground to pass legislation.

“The Republicans don’t think the lesson of the last two years is to compromise but to obstruct, obstruct, obstruct,” the aide added.

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