A mood of anxiety hangs over President Obama and congressional Democrats as they conduct a series of meetings this week to coordinate their 2014 political and legislative agendas.
While their outlook has improved since last fall, Democrats on Capitol Hill are worried the party is in danger of repeating its disastrous midterm performance of 2010 — and that this time, it could cost them the Senate.
While the White House and congressional Democrats have sought to present a unified front on raising the minimum wage and extending federal unemployment benefits, divisions over an array of issues including trade, the Keystone XL oil pipeline and how to contain Iran have repeatedly burst to the surface.
That’s made it difficult to calm tempers still hot over the bumbled rollout of ObamaCare.
“Some people are still furious about what went down in [the fall] with healthcare and some of the NSA elements,” said the senior Democratic aide, referring to the National Security Agency.
Obama will have his work cut out for him when he meets House Democrats on Tuesday and Senate Democrats on Wednesday, other aides said.
“I think the president is going to need to do some things to ease the fears of the 2014ers,” another Democratic aide said. “He’s going to have to say some things that get rid of some of the consternation there. I think the State of the Union address was a good start, but it’s not enough.”
The differences go beyond policies too.
Democrats resent Obama’s lack of engagement with Capitol Hill and the amount of time he has spent fundraising for party committees ahead of a difficult 2014 cycle.
“The No. 1 thing House and Senate Democrats are worried about is, ‘What are you going to do to get a majority or help keep our majority?’ ” said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf.
Democrats face a daunting task in defending 21 of the 36 Senate seats up for reelection this fall, in a cycle when the president’s party usually loses seats.
Republicans need six seats to win control of the upper chamber.
Democratic retirements in red states like South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana have complicated that task, and Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) are facing tough reelection battles.
Obama met Monday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in the Oval Office, and according to a source familiar with the meeting, was joined by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil.
On Tuesday, the party meetings will continue as the president and vice president host House Democrats at the White House for a roundtable discussion and reception. On Wednesday, Obama will address Senate Democrats’ retreat at D.C.’s Nationals Park.
Democratic strategists and former Hill aides say that it’s natural for some divisions to show during a tough election year, especially with so much at stake for the final two years of Obama’s presidency.
“It’s not unusual that you have some Democrats who are looking to show where they disagree with the president,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell. “In order to win in states that are swing or purple, you have to demonstrate you have some independence from the national party.”
But Democrats are wary of engaging in the type of full-scale infighting that doomed their prospects in 2010. During that race, base voters were disillusioned by the Wall Street bailout and scandals among Democratic lawmakers, while Republicans rode an anti-ObamaCare Tea Party wave.
“Voters understand the back-and-forth between the parties, but what they don’t like is internal fighting,” said Thornell. “Democrats need to show they’re united in order to have a good election year in 2014.”
Part of that effort will be coordinating the nuts-and-bolts work of presidential appearances and fundraising. Since the beginning of 2013, Obama has held nearly 30 fundraising events for Democratic committees, while first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle ObamaInstagram taps former Michelle Obama, Clinton aide to lead communications Americans should get used to pop culture blending with politics Michelle responds to Barack with her own Valentine's tweet MORE has held at least 10.
“I would expect that they’ll have a strong discussion of 2014, the president’s travel schedule, and his willingness to raise money for DSCC candidates,” said former Reid aide Jim Manley. “There’s been grumbling for years on the Hill about the unwillingness of the administration to raise money on behalf of House and Senate candidates. So I expect Sen. Reid to once again make the pitch to increase fundraising for the DSCC, the DNC.”
A House Democratic leadership aide said in their meeting with the president, lawmakers will emphasize how they can coordinate their policy agendas.
“It’s not a political meeting,” the aide said.
Still, the aide acknowledged that the Democrats will need to apply intense public pressure on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other GOP leaders if they want the Republicans to move on the minimum wage, unemployment benefits, immigration reform and other Democratic priorities this year. Leaders hope those issues won’t just motivate their base to come out during an off-year, but could woo independent voters, too.
Part of that push will come from Obama using the bully pulpit — “The president’s doing a good job of that already,” the aide said — and Senate Democrats will also play a role by staging votes on unemployment insurance, the minimum wage and likely taking the lead on legislation to raise the debt ceiling this month.
House Democrats were pleased with the tone and content of Obama’s speech, the aide added, and will be looking for a continuation of the same themes Tuesday during their meeting.
It also appears that some of the anger stemming from last fall’s botched rollout of the ObamaCare website has subsided.
“It looks like we’ve crossed over that bridge,” said a former senior administration official. “The enrollment numbers are better. It’s provided some delayed gratification.”
The White House is looking to smooth over whatever tension has carried over from last year, the former official said.
“They definitely want to make sure that people are on board” ahead of November, the former official said.