The White House and a growing number of congressional Democrats are pursuing different goals, even as President Obama heightens efforts to appease his liberal allies ahead of challenging midterm elections.
Obama, resisting suggestions that he’s losing clout, is already working to cement his legacy — evident in his go-it-alone approach in the face of resistance from Capitol Hill. But lawmakers have a more immediate challenge: winning re-election in November.
Vulnerable Democrats must keep their distance from a president with low approval ratings, while avoiding any appearance of weakening the head of their party.
Obama, though, is giving his party’s lawmakers little political cover.
The White House's top priority for Obama's second term is convincing the American public -- especially disillusioned progressives -- that the Affordable Care Act will work, validating the president's audacious overhaul of one-sixth of the economy.
That long-term goal, however, promises to be at odds with the short-term imperative of Democratic lawmakers, which is fighting off Republican attacks on Obamacare’s stumbling first year.
“The administration has an objective different from people who have to run this year,” said former Rep. Bob Walker, R-Pa. “With the continual Obamacare problems, the chances are it’s going to be awfully hard to convince people between now and November that it’s a good thing.”
Some Democrats aren’t being shy about touting their differences with Obama, showing just how far the president has fallen in purple and red-leaning states where centrist lawmakers once welcomed his embrace.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, flatly said he doesn't want Obama to campaign for him. And a handful of Democrats are pushing for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and for scrapping key Obamacare provisions.
Those tactics, some analysts said, will be tricky to pull off.
“I think some Democrats are trying to pick and choose which issues to run to and from President Obama,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. “But I’m not sure voters are going to make those distinctions.”
Walker, a one-time lieutenant for former Speaker Newt Gingrich, said Republicans must do more than just tie Democrats to Obama.
“We faced the same dilemma in 1994,” Walker said, referring to the so-called Gingrich Revolution, when Republicans regained control of the lower chamber.
“Some people just wanted to run against Bill Clinton,” he said. “But if you don’t have an alternative program to present, then you don’t have a mandate to govern.”
Obama’s pursuit of executive actions — modest economic, education and environmental programs — are widely seen as a tacit acknowledgment of the limits of his own powers. With prospects for marquee legislation dwindling, Obama is in the unenviable position of grabbing low-hanging fruit or nothing at all.
The president hopes to prove, however, that he still has the clout to influence elections, even if he can’t drive the legislative agenda in Washington.
Obama has long faced charges from congressional allies that he is more interested in his own political fortunes than aiding the cause of down-ballot candidates. With his last election behind him, a president who openly mocked calls to socialize more with lawmakers is now doing just that.
After his State of the Union address, the president met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at the White House, hosted House Democrats at a separate reception, and spoke to Senate Democrats at their annual issues conference.
The White House also reopened its internal political shop to coordinate fundraising and messaging strategies with Democratic campaign organizations.
“Of course it's on his mind,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said when asked if Obama was setting strategy for the midterms.
Yet, some Democratic lawmakers don’t really have the president on their minds — at least not how the White House hopes — as they push their own agendas.
The most attention-grabbing split came when Reid refused to back White House calls for “fast-track” legislation to pursue free-trade deals, rare resistance from a leader generally regarded as Obama’s bulldog on Capitol Hill.
And Democrats remain wary of the Obama administration’s plan to limit Iran’s nuclear programs, forcing the president to issue a veto threat against members of his own party.
“Quite honestly, I don’t think there’s the same fear of repercussions from the White House,” a senior House Democratic aide said. “I think some members see very little downside in taking on the White House more than they used to.”