Republicans warn Obama has 'poisoned' relations with campaign-style attacks

President Obama's public shaming of congressional Republicans to act on a range of issues may be winning at the polls — but it risks alienating the people needed to reach bipartisan compromise.

While Obama has made a strategic calculation that he needs to marshal public support to push through his agenda, centrist Republicans warn the president and his allies could go too far with partisan events and campaign-style ads targeting GOP lawmakers. 


One recent point of contention: Organizing for Action, Obama's former campaign arm, made its first post-election foray into campaigning this week with ads pressuring swing-state Republicans to support new gun control measures. 

Among the targets was Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks On The Money — Biden sticks with Powell despite pressure Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall MORE (R-Maine), who is working to build support for a bill focused on cracking down on gun trafficking.

“The way to tackle this difficult issue is to continue to have a constructive dialogue. Obviously ads run against me are not what I would call constructive dialogue,” Collins told The Hill. “I personally have very little interest in the White House's campaign activities on this issue. It's just not a factor in my consideration.”

In addition to the ads, Obama has been barnstorming the country on sequestration, a sign he sees the permanent campaign for public opinion as more valuable than private negotiations with Republicans. He also launched his push for immigration with a campaign-like speech in Nevada.

His leading of congressional Democrats in a chant of “they deserve a vote” on gun control during January’s State of the Union speech also was seen as an effort to raise the political stakes on the issue rather than encouraging Congress to debate behind closed doors.

The public opinion push seems to be working politically — Obama leads congressional Republicans in approval ratings by a wide margin. He has kept those issues in the spotlight and polls show the public currently blames the GOP for the looming sequester and sides with Obama on gun control and immigration.

But to get anything accomplished Obama will need to convince the few remaining centrist Republicans to vote with him — and a public lobbying campaign could infuriate the many members not facing tough elections..

The response of some of the targeted lawmakers indicates they’re not feeling any pressure — but if pushed too hard could back away from potential deals.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, noted that it was "really, really early to start" attacks, and said the ads could be counterproductive by further undermining relations between the GOP and the White House.

"It is strange to have President Obama's arm reaching out and attacking members of the House Republicans when in theory he's trying to work with us," he said. "I'm not sure how smart that is. If he really wants cooperation, why would you just sort of, intentionally antagonize? I don't know."

But Kline admitted relations are already at a nadir.

"The well is fairly poisoned right now, so we'll see," he said.

“He's definitely doing more of playing the outside game, going directly to the public, traveling around the country trying to mobilize people to lobby their congressmen,” said Emory University Professor Alan Abramowitz, an expert on political polarization. 

“They've decided the other approach of quiet diplomacy wasn't working. This may not work either but politically at least it probably helps him with the Democratic base and membership.”

The first OFA ad buy is pretty small — $100,000 total to run ads on news websites in the districts of 13 members of Congress. 

All of the targets hail from swing districts and states, though many, like Collins and Reps. Kline, Jim GerlachJames (Jim) GerlachThe business case for employer to employee engagement 2018 midterms: The blue wave or a red dawn? Pa. GOP 'disappointed' by rep retiring after filing deadline MORE (R-Pa.) and Bill Young (R-Fla.) look well-positioned for reelection. 

Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteSununu setback leaves GOP scrambling in New Hampshire The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - GOP dealt 2022 blow, stares down Trump-era troubles Sununu exit underscores uncertain GOP path to gain Senate majority MORE (R-N.H.) won’t face the voters again until 2014. OFA has promised major investments in public lobbying going forward.

Obama’s campaign push is a major reversal from much of his first term, when he stayed hands-off and gave Congress room to negotiate on health care. 

That plan backfired — his sky-high approval ratings tanked and the Tea Party movement rose to prominence as Obama stayed low-profile and tried to give Congress space to find bipartisan agreement on the issue. Democrats lost control of the House shortly afterward.

Many Democrats are happy to see a more aggressive Obama — and argue Republicans complaints are sour grapes from those who lost the election.

“There's nothing like the bully pulpit of the president's office,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who is working on a bipartisan gun trafficking bill. “He won with a strong mandate and his support of these issues, getting out front and galvanizing the support of the people is very important.”

Rep. Luis GutierrezLuis Vicente GutierrezIllinois Democrats propose new 'maximized' congressional map Biden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic primary fight shifts to South Carolina, Nevada MORE (D-Ill.), a leader in bipartisan talks on immigration, agreed.

“Nothing happens inside Washington, D.C., without a demand from outside Washington, D.C. That's the president's role — to continue raising the issue,” he said.

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Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) said that’s a better approach than he had early on in his presidency.

“He's taken a much more active role in his second term now than he did in his first term, and I think that's a good thing,” he said.

Still, some centrist Democrats say that while Obama’s approach has so far been effective, he needs to make sure to stick to a tone of bipartisanship and avoid antagonizing Republicans who might otherwise work with him.

“He does need to have a hands-on approach, but what does that look like? It should, particularly from a White House that's not looking down the barrel of an election anymore, should be one that fosters cooperation and bipartisanship,” said Kristen Hawn, the head of a center-left super-PAC that is also helping former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles (D) push their bipartisan debt reduction plan.

GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, who has long called for immigration reform, said he was worried Obama’s pressure could hurt bipartisan talks.

“Folks inside the Beltway in both parties don't like being shown up and when the president gallivants around the countryside saying 'this is what it is' that burns up people in Congress. It's certainly helping him on the message side right now, but I think some people inside and outside the Beltway are tiring of this,” O'Connell said. 

“You're talking about some very delicate issues and what people want within Congress is a leader, not a legislative dictator. It's going to take some very big behind the doors action where people have to put their cards on the table and if people feel like he's going to burn them they're not going to do it.”