Democrats hope Obama meeting means more humility in 2014

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Frustrated Senate Democrats hope a meeting set to take place on Wednesday with President Obama will help them turn a corner with a White House they see as too distant and insular.

Aides say the new faces joining the president’s inner circle suggest a possible new humility following a year that saw Obama hammered over the botched rollout of his healthcare law, a series of administrative controversies and an aborted attempt to launch a military strike against Syria. 

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The White House staff shake-up includes the return of Washington veterans John Podesta and Phil Schiliro, as well as the promotion of a longtime aide to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Katie Beirne Fallon, to White House legislative affairs director.

Democrats have repeatedly expressed their annoyance in recent months about the lack of contact from the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, from both the White House staff and the president himself. 

“Let’s put it this way, it couldn’t get any worse,” one senior Democratic aide said of the contact last year. “The communication was terrible, and the overall strategy wasn’t much better.”

All three staffers have deep ties to Capitol Hill and are expected to improve coordination and communication with congressional Democrats.

“The White House obviously recognized there was a problem, and I think the shake-up is an indication of good things to come,” one senior Democratic aide said. “I think they recognize that, if we lost the Senate, it would be game over.”

With the 2014 midterm elections inching closer, Democratic aides across the upper chamber say they have seen a marginal improvement since the height of the tension at the end of the year. 

“There’s definitely smoother coordination,” one Democratic aide said. “And they seem more open to hearing what we think.”

Beirne Fallon, for example, has already met with House and Senate leaders for listening sessions, according to a source familiar with the meetings. And Schiliro has been in regular communication with lawmakers and top aides.

Senate aides say they’re hopeful the president can reset after a rocky start to his second term.

White House aides have indicated in the last week that Obama is feeling rejuvenated since returning from his Christmas vacation in Hawaii and is eager to kick the second year of his second term into high gear. The president himself has indicated that 2014 could be a “breakthrough year.”

But some Democratic aides are skeptical and worry Obama might already be a lame duck president.

“Have they improved?” one senior Democratic aide asked. “Maybe a little. But has there been a full-court press? I don’t think so. I think they can and should do a lot better.”

Much of the criticism still directed at Obama from Capitol Hill stems from a perception that he is aloof and inattentive. 

“He hasn’t really ever wanted to have long conversations with my boss,” the third senior Democratic Senate aide said. “It always seems like he’s watching the clock.”

Late last year, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) complained that Obama waits until “it’s almost to a crisis stage” before engaging Congress on pivotal issues.

“I just think sometimes they’re looking for a little bit of guidance also … that’s your responsibility as a leader to give that guidance,” Manchin told West Virginia television station WOWK.

“He’s a nonentity almost,” said another aide, who argued Obama missed an opportunity to move forward with innovative proposals after his reelection victory in 2012. “For some reason, his lame-duckness started very quickly, but maybe that will change,” the aide said.

The president frequently uses Congress as a foil, pinning blame for dysfunction and gridlock on Capitol Hill, something that can ruffle feathers on Obama’s side of the aisle.

Wednesday’s meeting comes as some Senate Democrats have publicly voiced policy disagreements with the White House.

More than a dozen Democratic senators, including Schumer  and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.), have backed a bill imposing additional sanctions on Iran, despite Obama’s plea to wait until the end of a six-month negotiating window, during which world powers will seek an end to Tehran’s nuclear program. Over the weekend, Obama threatened to veto the sanctions.

The meeting is also scheduled 48 hours ahead of the president’s speech on reforming the nation’s intelligence programs — an issue on which leading Senate Democrats, including Colorado’s Mark Udall and Oregon’s Ron Wyden, have been vocal critics.

Still, the White House is signaling it’s hopeful officials can find common ground in the coming year.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that Obama and lawmakers on Wednesday would “discuss their shared priorities for 2014.”

On Tuesday, Obama said he was “very pleased” lawmakers could strike a deal on the federal budget and said he was “looking forward” to working with Congress.

 

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