WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama, now facing the consequences of automatic spending cuts and the complications they raise for his broader domestic agenda, is taking the most specific steps of his administration in an attempt to ensure the election of a Democratic-controlled Congress in two years.
“What I can’t do is force Congress to do the right thing,” Obama told reporters at the White House on Friday after a fruitless meeting with Republican leaders to avert the country’s latest fiscal crisis, known as the sequester. “The American people may have the capacity to do that.”
Obama, fresh off his November re-election, began almost at once executing plans to win back the House in 2014, which he and his advisers believe will be crucial to the outcome of his second term and to his legacy as president. He is doing so by trying to articulate for the American electorate his own feelings — an exasperation with an opposition party that blocks even the most politically popular elements of his agenda.
Obama has committed to raising money for fellow Democrats, agreed to help recruit viable candidates, and launched a political nonprofit group dedicated to furthering his agenda and that of his congressional allies. The goal is to flip the Republican-held House back to Democratic control, allowing Obama to push forward with a progressive agenda on gun control, immigration, climate change and the economy during his final two years in office, according to congressional Democrats, strategists and others familiar with Obama’s thinking.
“The president understands that to get anything done, he needs a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives,” said Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “To have a legacy in 2016, he will need a House majority in 2014, and that work has to start now.”
This approach marks a significant shift in the way Obama has worked with a divided Congress. He has compromised and badgered, but rarely — and never so early — campaigned to change its composition.
Democrats would have to gain 17 House seats to win back the majority they lost in 2010, and their challenge involves developing a persuasive argument for why the party deserves another chance controlling both Congress and the presidency. In the last election, American voters reaffirmed the political status quo in Washington, choosing to retain a divided government.
Of all the presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt, only Bill Clinton picked up House seats for his party in the midterm election of his second term. His approval rating on the eve of the 1998 contest was 65 percent, 14 points above Obama’s current public standing.
The specific steps Obama is taking to win back the House for his party mark an evolution for a president long consumed by the independence of his political brand.
Obama has committed to eight fundraisers for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this year, compared with just two events in 2009. The Democrats lost the House the following year, and Obama’s legislative agenda has largely stalled since then.
The president has also pledged to put his formidable campaign organization, now known as Organizing for Action, behind Democratic House candidates and to find ways to share its rich trove of voter data with the party’s campaign committee.
After delivering his election victory speech in November, Obama walked off the Chicago stage and made two phone calls related to his political plans — one to Israel and one to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the last Democratic House speaker.
Israel said Obama told him “how focused he would be on winning a House majority for the Democrats,” many of whom complained that the president did not do enough during his first term to help members on the Hill.
In early January, Israel said, he met in Washington with Jim Messina, Obama’s re-election campaign manager and now head of Organizing for Action, also known as OFA. The subject was the 2014 midterms.
“If 2012 was a referendum on President Obama, then 2014 will be a referendum on the tea party Congress,” Israel said. “And the president and House Democrats are joined at the hip on this.”
In his State of the Union address last month, Obama outlined an agenda that called for gun-control measures, immigration legislation, a hike in the minimum wage, and a new focus on climate change, among other items that poll well with the public.
So far, though, most of the proposals have little traction in the Republican-controlled House. Obama’s decision to squarely blame the opposition for across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester has also generated little goodwill across the aisle.
That is among the risks of Obama’s strategy to define the differences between his agenda and the Republicans’: He could be seen as the kind of partisan politician he once deplored, and he is likely have little to show for it in terms of legislative achievements.
Two former White House officials used the same word — “hubris” — to describe what they viewed as the administration’s highly public and sometimes misleading turn against congressional Republicans in the days heading into the sequester.
In a January speech, House Speaker John Boehner warned that Obama intends to “annihilate” the Republican Party in his second term, a charge the White House denied.
But a Boehner spokesman, Brendan Buck, said “the president would like nothing more than to have complete liberal control of Congress for his last two years in office.”
“Just look at what he’s doing now,” Buck said, referring to the sequester. “He’s not even negotiating at this point. It’s purely political theater.”
In some ways, Obama is flipping the traditional script for second-term presidents.
Most have about two years to secure a domestic agenda before lame-duck status sets in. But Obama is laying out an argument for a new Congress that, if successful, could give him his last two years in office to cement his legacy.
The GOP resistance to his agenda is helping give Obama the political framework for the midterm congressional campaign — if not short-term legislative victories.
“I think six months from now, if Republican recalcitrance continues, it will become by definition a 2014 strategy,” said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist. “At some point over the next three to six months, when most of these issues will get resolved or they won’t, then the Republicans will face a 2014 problem.”
Some Obama allies say the president views OFA as a way of marshalling — and extending beyond the traditional two years of a second term — his political power. The organization went largely dormant after his 2008 victory, only mobilized during late-inning pushes to secure health care and Wall Street legislation.
This time is different. The group is already seeking $500,000 donations from major Obama campaign bundlers.
Within hours of Obama’s appearance Friday to talk about the spending cuts, OFA’s Jon Carson, a veteran of the first-term White House, sent out a mass email declaring that “because congressional Republicans refused to act, devastating budget cuts known as the sequester are going into effect.”
The message, urging supporters to sign an online petition to get congressional Republicans to support Obama’s budget plans, ended with a fundraising appeal.
The Republican Party, still recovering from its 2012 election losses, remains divided over Obama’s more popular public policy initiatives, including many gun-control initiatives and such populist economic proposals as raising the minimum wage.
Polls also show that the public blames Republicans more for the sequester — at least so far — than Obama.
“Clearly, the president is winning the debate on the sequester, but the sequester is Act 7 of what’s going to be a 12-act play,” said Steve Murphy, a Democratic strategist. “I think the most significant impact the president has on the midterms will be his job approval rating and favorability” at the time.
Obama’s rating is currently 51 percent — nine points lower than FDR’s in the year when Democrats lost 71 House seats in his second term.
One joke inside the White House is that Obama has always been at his worst when he’s winning — from the midterm failures of 2010 following a productive legislative session to a dismal first debate performance against Republican challenger Mitt Romney last fall. It is a mistake they don’t intend to repeat in his second term.
“The president’s priority is to try to pass the agenda that he ran on, and everything he’s doing now is in pursuit of that goal,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a former chairman of the party’s House campaign committee. “The fact that Republicans are divided on the issues is not the purpose of the president’s strategy, although it may be a byproduct.”