Obama political value unclear amid controversy

Associated Press
President Barack Obama is greeted by Massachusetts Senate candidate, Rep. Ed Markey, right, accompanied by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, left, and Massachusetts Gov Deval Patrick, center, upon his arrival at Logan International Airport in Boston, Wednesday, June 12, 2013. Obama traveled to Boston to campaign for Markey's Massachusetts Democratic Senate campaign. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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MIAMI (AP) — President Barack Obama put his second term appeal to the test Wednesday, seeking to boost Democrats in Boston and Miami both as a fundraiser and as a political drawing card, even while trailed by controversies over government prying.

Obama, in Massachusetts to rally voters before a nationally watched special Senate election before flying to Florida for a pair of high-dollar fundraisers, rolled up his sleeves and tuned his voice to the campaign cadences of his own re-election run last year to pitch for Rep. Ed Markey, the Democratic hopeful in the race.

"I've got to have folks in the United States Senate who are willing to stand up for working people just like I have," he said. Markey, he added, "will be my partner."

In headlining a rally for Markey, Obama sought to fulfill a pledge to work harder to help elect Democrats than he did in years past. It's a risky proposition that raised questions about whether the president will be more asset or liability to his party in the coming election season.

Moreover, the president is carrying out his partisan duties while at the same time seeking bipartisan cooperation from Republicans on key issues, most notably an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

Raising cash for his party hours later at a lavish home in Miami, Obama said he was pleased by a pair of successful procedural votes on the immigration bill Tuesday that passed with broad support from both parties. But his tone remained plainly partisan as he told Democratic donors they're part of a movement whose core principle is that everyone in America should have a chance at success.

"That's us. That's what the Democratic Party is all about," Obama said. He added that he was willing to work with Republicans who are open to compromise but that "it would be a whole lot easier" if Democrats had solid majorities in both chambers of Congress.

About 50 supporters paid between $1,000 and $32,400 — the legal maximum — to attend the dinner with Obama in Miami, where the president was holding a reception with 175 donors at another supporter's home Wednesday evening. Greeting him with a kiss at the airport and accompanying him to both stops was Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman known for mincing no words in attacking her party's GOP opponents.

Each stop lends Obama's proven ability to energize Democrats to the party's cause this year and next, with control of Congress and Obama's second-term agenda at stake. But the visits also create opportunities for Republicans eager to link their Democratic opponents to the Obama administration's recent troubles, including controversies involving the Internal Revenue Service and government intelligence-gathering.

Even in Democrat-friendly Massachusetts, there are signs of modest declines in Obama's popularity as Republicans seize on the White House's struggles in the June 25 special election to replace John Kerry and in nascent campaigns across the nation.

"We hope that the president thinks he's going to be an asset, and goes all over the place," said Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman. "When you look at how the candidates are reacting, so far the early ones are running away fast."

Markey last week criticized the government's massive collection of personal phone and Internet records, even as Obama defended the practice. The disclosures about the National Security Agency surveillance came with the administration already facing questions over the IRS' improper targeting of conservative groups, the seizure of journalists' phone records and the handling of the attack in Libya last year that left four Americans dead.

In Massachusetts, 60 percent of likely voters in the coming special election give the president favorable marks, according to a Suffolk University poll released this week. While a strong number, that's a decline from last month. Nationally, Obama's approval ratings are hovering at just under 50 percent.

"The numbers that you've seen dropping nationally are dropping here as well," said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. "There are some Massachusetts voters who are beginning to question the administration on some of these issues."

At a minimum, the shift complicates the president's promise to go all out for the party in the 2014 elections, mindful that sending more Democrats to Congress could be the difference between success and failure for key aspects of his agenda such as immigration, climate change and a budget deal. Republicans control the House, and the Democrats' Senate majority could be in jeopardy.

Democratic officials say Obama has agreed to headline at least 20 party fundraisers in and out of Washington. That's in addition to candidate-specific events like Wednesday's rally in Massachusetts. The aggressive schedule has seen Obama campaign so far this year in California, Texas, Illinois, New York and Georgia. He raised $3.25 million for House Democrats on a single day in April in San Francisco.

The president continues the effort later Wednesday with a Miami fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.

But Obama probably won't attend many rallies in places like Louisiana, Arkansas and West Virginia, where Democrats are defending Senate seats in conservative-friendly territory.

"Every candidate has to make their own decision," said David Plouffe, who ran Obama's 2008 campaign. "You don't force yourself on a campaign. If they want the help, they're going to ask."

Plouffe said the White House understands that Democrats in deep-red states will need to distance themselves publicly from Obama on some issues. But even in those states, they may want to take advantage of Obama's vaunted political operation.

"We have a lot of volunteers in every state of the country," Plouffe said. "Those volunteers are still an underappreciated secret weapon in terms of how we won."

The aggressive pace of Obama's efforts this year is a marked shift for a president criticized for doing too little to help his party win elections during his first four years in office.

"There's a big difference in this race," Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday at a fundraiser for Markey, urging Democrats not to take the special election for granted. "Barack Obama's not at the head of the ticket. And that means those legions of African-Americans and Latinos are not automatically going to come out."

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