Obama lays out 2010 strategy to Senate Democrats

By Chris Cillizza  |  The Fix, Washington Post  |  View story in the original context
PUBLISHED: February 04, 2010

1. President Obama spoke to -- and took questions from -- his former Democratic Senate colleagues on Thursday, the second time in a week that he has conducted a question-and-answer session with members of Congress. Unlike last week's tété-a-tété with House Republicans, which the White House believes was a critical pivot point heading into the midterm elections, the questions Obama received were largely friendly and the mood generally upbeat. Missed it? Here's what you need to know: 1) Like his state of the union speech, Obama was unyielding in his insistence that Democrats are expected to lead and produce results. "Those problems haven't gone away," he said at one point. "It's still our responsibility to address them . . . we still have to lead. At another moment, Obama said that the lesson from Democrats loss in Massachusetts was "not to do nothing . . . the American people are out of patience with business as usual." 2) Of the eight senators who asked questions of the president, seven are up for reelection in the fall. Of that group, six -- Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.), Michael Bennet(Colo.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.) -- are being aggressively targeted by Republicans. In other words, the questions were not randomly selected. 3) Bennet, Lincoln and Bayh all asked variations on the same question: How can Democrats effectively make the case that they are accomplishing real change in Washington. "This place looks broken to the American people," said Bennet; "People are out there watching us, they see us nothing more than Democrats and Republicans up here fighting," said Lincoln. (It's worth noting that Bennett, Lincoln and Bayh all come from states where they must win conservative-leaning independents to get reelected. 4) Perhaps previewing a line of attack against Republicans in the fall, the president repeatedly brought up the GOP filibuster threats to blame the minority party for impeding progress. He noted that the Senate cast more cloture votes in 2009 than it did in the 1950 and 1960s combined and that on a number of measures where cloture had to be invoked to end debate and bring the bill to a vote the legislation eventually passed overwhelmingly. "What that indicates is a degree to which [Republicans] are just trying to gum up the works instead of getting business done," said Obama. 5) On several occasions, he acknowledged the difficulty of the political environment and mistakes he had made. "I know these are tough times to hold office," he said. "I'm there in the arena with you." (Some congressional Democrats and party strategists undoubtedly rolled their eyes on that one.) On health care, which he insisted the Senate must find a way to pass, Obama admitted that in the final push to pass the bill "some of that transparency got lost . . . and I think we paid a price for it."

2. Former Indiana senator Dan Coats (R) took a preliminary step toward a challenge to Sen. Evan Bayh (D) this fall, announcing in a statement that he had authorized supporters to begin collecting signatures to get him on the ballot. Before the ink was dry on that statement, however, the two national parties were already working furiously to define both Coats and Bayh. First came the report by Politico's Ben Smith that Coats had been a Virginia resident for the last decade. Then came a detailed dossier from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee of the clients Coats had represented as a federally registered lobbyist; "Indianans won't ignore Dan Coats' decade as a lobbyist working the system to gain special favors for the banking industry at the time of financial collapse and at the expense of working Americans." Pushback came quickly from the Republican side in the form of a dossier detailing Bayh's dearth of trips back to his home state and a promise to make his wife's memberships on several corporate boards an issue in the race. Democrats' aggressiveness is likely an attempt to force Coats to reconsider his decision to run but Republicans insist he is in the race to stay.

3. A week after Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden decided against running for his father's Senate seat, Newcastle County Executive Chris Coons (D) announced his candidacy with the backing of the state and national party. "With Chris's entrance into the race, Delawareans will face a choice between a proven reformer who has created an engine of economic growth and a longtime Washington insider who has voted with the special interests," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) Coons, elected to his current post in 2004, begins the open seat race against Rep. Mike Castle (R) as a significant underdog. Castle has held statewide office in the First State since 1980 and ended 2009 with $1.7 million in the bank. Both the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report rate the race as likely to switch parties in the fall and polling, too suggests Castle is in the driver's seat.

4., a liberal outside group, is dropping $2 million on a seven-state ad campaign pushing a collection of senators -- and candidates for Senate -- to support clean energy legislation in Congress. The ads, which are running against Sens. Chuck Grassley(R-Iowa), Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), John Thune (R-S.D.) and John Barasso (R-Wyo.) as well as Reps. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), feature local veterans discussing the need for energy independence through the lens of the failed terrorist bombing of an airplane on Christmas Day in Detroit. The ads also detail both the Senators' opposition to a "bipartisan clean energy bill" and the amount of money they have each taken from the oil industry. "Senator, it's time to put America's security ahead of your own politics," the veteran says at the end of the ad. While the White House insists that passing an energy bill through the Senate is a top priority this year, it's not clear that the chamber has the political will to do so -- particularly with the health care bill still facing an uncertain fate.

5. Former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson (R) signed on as an adviser to a hedge fund on Wednesday, a move that seems to indicate he is likely to take a pass on a challenge to Sen. Russ Feingold (D) this fall. "Thompson will be relied upon at Peak Ridge for his expertise in agriculture and agribusiness," reads a story on Thompson's hiring. Coming off of their recruiting success in Indiana where former senator Dan Coats (R) appears set to challenge Sen.Evan Bayh (D) this fall, national Republicans set their sights on Thompson due to his long record of electoral success -- four consecutive terms! -- in the Badger State. Assuming Thompson is out, Republicans may well turn to former representative Mark Neumann. Neumann is currently running for governor but faces an uphill primary fight against Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. Neumann ran for the Senate in 1998 against Feingold but lost narrowly. Republican strategists note that the filing deadline in Wisconsin isn't until July, meaning that even if Thompson and Neumann decide against the race, there is still plenty of time to find a credible alternative to Feingold.


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