By Josh Lederman - 02/15/12 10:15 AM EST
Democrats as a whole have commended President Obama’s budget proposal for 2013, but in a few telling instances, members of the president’s party are seeking a bit of distance.
Those Democrats tend to come from red states where the president’s poll numbers are underwater, and their critique of Obama’s plan — or their choice to stay silent — could foretell reelection races where Democrats will run away from the president in the fall.
Obama on Monday unveiled a $3.8 trillion budget that Republicans claim is far too bloated. It calls for increased revenues but also targeted tax cuts, cutting spending in areas like defense while upping the dollars going to transportation and other projects.
It is highly unlikely the budget will be implemented in anything like the form Obama presented, but the proposal symbolizes Obama’s economic priorities heading into the last year of his first term — and his bid for reelection.
In the Senate, Jon Tester (Mont.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.), two Democrats who represent states where Obama is struggling, said Obama’s proposal had fallen short of what was necessary to rein in federal debt.
“Unfortunately, this budget still includes unacceptable deficit levels, and I’m ready to work with Democrats and Republicans alike to tackle this problem,” McCaskill said.
And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has kept quiet on the budget, declining to give it the full-throated praise that Democratic leaders in the House have poured onto the proposal. Reid isn’t up for reelection in November, but his fragile hold over Democratic control of the Senate is certainly up in the air.
If history is any clue, anything Democrats say in a GOP-leaning state to extol Obama and his budget priorities could easily find itself in an ad sponsored by Republican opponents and their allies.
Democrats maintain that any distance between the president and red-state Democrats is a reflection of the local values that brought them to office in the first place, not any cold calculation of the political optics.
“They live in states where people care very deeply about deficit reduction and spending,” said a Democratic strategist. “They elect Democrats like Claire and Tester because they’re fiscal watchdogs. It’s who they are.”
But Republicans insist any success at creating the appearance of distance from Obama’s economic policies will be short-lived for Democrats.
“This issue once again highlights the fundamental problem facing Jon Tester, Claire McCaskill and other Democrats running in conservative-leaning states,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh. “They can try to run from him today, but come November, they’re going to be sharing the top of the ticket with them.”
“When Democratic senators agree with the president, they say so, and when they disagree with him they say so as well,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Shripal Shah. “Voters will have a clear choice in this election, between the Republican agenda that is rooted in extreme Tea Party ideology and hands out tax breaks for oil companies and a Democratic agenda that creates jobs for the middle class and gets the economy back on track.”
In the House, where most of the Democrats representing conservative-leaning districts were rooted out in 2010, the few remaining Blue Dog Democrats spoke out in unison to thank Obama for moving in the right direction while critiquing his reluctance to cut even more.
“I’m pleased that it cuts spending overall,” Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the co-
chairman of the Blue Dogs, said in a statement. “However, we can and must do more to get our fiscal house back in order and return to the days of balanced budgets.”
Even Democrats who aren’t currently in Congress and won’t face a vote on the budget this year are under the microscope of Republicans wanting to know whether they stand with a president who could drag them down in November.
Republicans pointed out that Senate candidates Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Richard Carmona in Arizona, and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota had kept their feelings on Obama’s budget close to the vest.
But Heitkamp was one of the only Democrats to openly scold Obama over another issue intimately tied to jobs and the economy: the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, which Obama decided in January to block.
“People in Washington talk a big game about creating energy jobs, getting off our addiction to foreign oil, but when the time comes, our leaders in Washington today continue to play political games and get in partisan squabbles on getting the job done,” she said after sending a letter to Obama urging him to reverse course.