By Alexander Bolton - 10/04/11 09:30 AM EDT
President Obama’s relations with Senate Democratic leaders are deteriorating along with his poll numbers.
With Obama’s approval ratings at record lows and the 2012 electoral map favoring Senate Republicans, the president and Senate Democrats are, in many ways, on divergent paths. Vulnerable Democrats from red states see Obama as impeding their chances of winning reelection, while the president often seems aloof to their concerns.
Obama, focused on winning a second term, has distanced himself from Congress altogether, at times not making the distinction between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.
The proximate causes of friction can seem slight, such as a recent breach of protocol, which left Senate Democratic leaders grumbling.
Obama left his party’s top senators, who had assembled for a conference call, hanging on the phone for nearly 20 minutes before National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling came on the line with a seemingly vague notion of what the call was supposed to be about, Democratic sources said.
The White House and Reid’s office did not comment for this article.
Reid has been Obama’s most important ally in Congress, but the relationship has never been particularly affectionate, even though Reid was one of Obama’s first Senate colleagues to privately urge him to run for president.
Obama and Reid speak frequently on the phone, but the conversations can be terse. One Democratic source quipped that it’s often a contest to guess who will hang up on the other first. Reid, as it turns out, doesn’t have a habit of saying goodbye when he ends a call.
The White House has had to rely on Reid because, unlike former President Clinton, Obama has little appetite for regularly calling Democratic lawmakers.
“I think one of the problems with the White House is that it’s been too set apart. It’s been too Chicago-centric, and it needs to get out,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “Clinton didn’t just talk to four leaders, he picked up the phone and he kind of said, ‘I really need your vote on this.’”
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While Obama has personally leaned on members for their votes on controversial bills, House and Senate Democrats have been frustrated with the White House’s communication.
Senate Democrats note that Reid has been Obama’s faithful soldier since the start of his presidency. White House officials view Reid as easier to work with than House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).
Reid made a huge contribution to Obama’s legacy by uniting all 60 members of his conference in 2010 to pass healthcare reform, despite misgivings from liberals and centrists alike.
But as Democratic lawmakers near a tough election, rank-and-file members feel less inclined to stand close to Obama.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is seeking a second term in 2012, said she would not join Obama for a public appearance in Missouri on Tuesday, citing the Senate’s busy schedule.
One Democratic aide, whose boss is facing reelection in a swing state, said of Obama: “There are no coattails.”
Republicans will capture control of the Senate if they net four seats in 2012 (three if Obama loses). The map favors the GOP; Democrats are defending 23 seats, Republicans only 10.
In a pointed show of independence, Reid scheduled a vote Monday to take up legislation addressing Chinese currency manipulation, which the administration does not support. The leader has put two of the president’s priorities, free-trade agreements and a $447 billion jobs package, on the backburner to deal first with China.
Reid has pronounced himself “not a big fan of free-trade agreements,” despite Obama’s stated goal to double American exports by 2014. The majority leader pointed out that no Democratic senator is completely happy with Obama’s jobs package, though he has promised to vote on it.
Yet Reid has pushed back against Obama before.
Shortly after the 2008 election, which consolidated Democratic power in Washington, Reid told The Hill, “I don’t work for Obama.”
In January, Reid panned Obama’s call in the State of the Union address to eliminate earmarks. Reid said Obama was “absolutely wrong” and should “back off.”
Reid’s allies defend these tussles as the acts of an “institutionalist” who believes in the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.
“He’s an institutionalist at heart and believes very strongly in separation of powers,” said Jim Manley, a former senior aide to Reid. “While he’s the president’s strongest ally, he has to do what he needs to do to represent constituents in Nevada and the Democratic caucus as a whole.”
Reid’s insistence on giving priority to the China legislation stems less from his belief in congressional prerogatives. It’s a simple calculation that the political needs of his caucus are diverging from the president’s.
While Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are more concerned about keeping China appeased as a creditor, Reid’s focus is on keeping his majority. That will require the reelection of Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and/or Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), three vulnerable incumbents who would be helped by Senate passage of the currency bill.
“It would be a real deliverable to the constituents of Midwestern senators,” said a Senate Democratic aide.
Democratic aides claim that tensions between Obama and Senate Democrats have eased in recent days and both sides are more unified after Reid and the caucus gave the president and his advisers an earful.
Senators were growing increasingly irritated over Obama’s unwillingness to take Republicans on for blocking their jobs agenda. Obama this summer often scolded Congress without drawing a distinction between Democrats and Republicans.
“I told the president when I talked to him yesterday that I thought his speech in Michigan — I watched parts of that on [PBS’s] ‘NewsHour,’ and I thought it was tremendous, and I hope he keeps that same pattern of speaking,” Reid later said of the conversation.
Many House and Senate Democrats felt abandoned when the president put Medicare and Social Security cuts on the table during his July negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Reid was furious when The New York Times reported a deal was imminent while Democratic senators were left in the dark.
“I’m the Senate majority leader — why don’t I know about this deal?” Reid demanded of White House budget director Jack Lew as he walked into a meeting with Senate Democrats that same day.
Lew denied a deal had been struck, though White House officials the next day said a bipartisan agreement had nearly been reached with Boehner.