The Democrats’ family drama

Greg Nash

As President Obama congratulated Republican lawmakers for “running very strong campaigns” during a meeting Friday at the White House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) stared, stone-faced, into the distance.

Reid was seated at the president’s elbow, but in many ways, the gulf between the two leaders has never seemed greater.

{mosads}Tension between Obama and Reid has been long simmering, multiple sources with knowledge of their relationship say. It exploded into the headlines following Tuesday’s landslide victory for Republicans.

Within minutes of networks declaring that Republicans had seized back the Senate, the Washington Post published a report featuring David Krone, Reid’s chief of staff, blasting President Obama for the party’s losses.

Krone described Obama as a drag on Democratic candidates across the country, with the president’s sagging approval ratings and the administration’s botched implementation of ObamaCare steepening the gradient that vulnerable incumbents had to climb. 

Moreover, Krone charged, the White House had kept Senate Democrats from tapping some of the president’s most loyal donors.

The hit was the political equivalent of the kind of uppercut Reid might have delivered during his boxing career.

Democratic sources said the Majority Leader was aware of Krone’s cooperation with the Post, and that his office disapproves of staffers who freelance to the press. 

One Democratic operative described the story as “a way to protect Reid for the losses that we knew we were going to face.”

“The way it was done was to ensure that people knew Reid had no fault.”

Reinforcing the notion that the Post story was an ordered hit, Reid’s communications director, Adam Jentleson, retweeted multiple links to the story.

The White House, for its part, publicly insisted there was nothing to see there.

Press secretary Josh Earnest argued the comments did not represent the true relationship between Reid and Obama, noting the pair had worked effectively on a slew of the president’s priorities. 

And an administration official said the White House had been fielding calls from senators, Senate chiefs of staff, top operatives, and Democratic lobbyists insisting that they did not share Krone’s views.

But Earnest betrayed the administration’s annoyance with the story when pressed as to whether there was a need for the president to mend fences with the majority leader.

“Well, if there is, I’m confident that’s something that the President and Senator Reid, given their strong track record, will be able to take care of,” Earnest said. “If they do that, I doubt it will be published in The Washington Post, frankly.”

One Democrat familiar with the White House’s thinking said the perception at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was that Krone was looking to shift blame squarely to Obama for Tuesday night’s devastating results.  

Despite the public friction, the White House and Reid’s office have worked closely on preparing a lame duck agenda, including new funding requests to fight Ebola and to pursue the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Both Obama and Reid are also eager to advance dozens of the president’s appointees before Republicans seize control of the upper chamber.

But those familiar with the Reid-Obama dynamic say that there has also been tension between the two since at least 2011, when the president had plans to negotiate a big debt limit deal. That never came to pass. 

“I think how the president and his team — and I emphasize his team — mishandled the debt limit negotiations left a sour taste, and it’s never really recovered since then,” said one source familiar with the negotiations.

That friction has only been exacerbated by tension over access to the president’s donors. 

White House lawyers told the Senate Majority PAC not to contact donors for more than a week after the president headlined events for the fundraising group, expressing concerns that doing so would violate federal election laws. In the Post story, Krone accused Obama of creating that rule ad hoc.

“Money has been a long-standing frustration,” a source said. “Every two years, they’ve gone to the White House, asked for help and they haven’t always gotten it.”

An individual familiar with the White House’s thinking said that view irked those within the administration who saw the restrictions as a genuine necessity.

The White House has also defended the president’s role in the midterm campaign, noting that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has publicly endorsed the president’s work on behalf of Democratic candidates.

“I do think that a bit of the hyperbole over the president is overplayed,” DSCC director Guy Cecil said at a Playbook lunch after the election. “He’s done everything we’ve asked.”

Those on both sides of the relationship downplay the notion of any personal animosity between Reid and Obama.

“Neither of them are social people so calling them ‘friends’ would be a ridiculous term,” said one operative. 

“But they’ve always respected each other and the president has trusted Reid to carry out his agenda in the Senate. But that said, the executive and legislative branches will always have bumps here and there. But other than small frustrations, it’s never been anything big.”

Moreover, there was even a grudging respect in some quarters for the manner in which Krone’s hit was delivered. 

“A lot of people in this town will stab you in the back,” said one Democratic strategist. “But David is very much a stab-you-in-the-front kind of guy. He wanted to make sure the White House knew it was coming from him and I think a lot of people respect that.”

While the Post story stung, there’s little indication it will permanently spoil Reid and Obama’s relationship. The White House believes there are too many policy priorities for the two not to continue working together closely. Reid loyalists agree, saying there’s little chance of the White House freezing him out.

“How are they going to take it out on him?” the operative pondered aloud, regarding the White House. “They still need Sen. Reid. I’m sure they’re upset. No one wants to be called out. But retribution? I don’t think they have either the muscle or the inclination to do that.”

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