Democrats Seek Distance From Obama
As Congress begins picking through President Obama's vast election year budget, many Democratic incumbents and candidates seem to be finding something they love — to campaign against. A Democratic Senate candidate in Missouri denounced the budget's sky-high deficit. A Florida Democrat whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center hit the roof over NASA budget cuts. And an endangered Senate Democrat denounced proposed cuts in farm subsidies. A headline on the 2010 campaign website of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), blares her opposition to Obama's farm budget: ``Blanche stands up for Arkansas farm families,'' it says. Heading into an election season in which Republicans are trying to tie Democrats to Obama's unpopular policies, Obama's budget gives his fellow Democrats an unlikely campaign tool — a catalogue of ways to establish their distance from controversial aspects of his administration. It is a time-tested campaign tactic for politicians to declare their independence of party leaders. But the tactic is particularly important for Democrats this year, because their party dominates Washington, and being an insider is a political liability in an anti-incumbent climate. Underscoring that dynamic, Obama held a question-and-answer session with Senate Democrats on Wednesday, drawing polite challenges from a procession of incumbents up for reelection. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), a recent party-switcher, questioned trade policies battering the steel industry. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) asked about health care for first responders involved in the Sept. 11attack. The message from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Ca.): ``California is hurting.'' All that underscores a potential gap between Obama's governing agenda and congressional Democrats' political interest in the election. While Democrats on the ballot encounter stiff headwinds, Obama is asking them look at the big picture on the budget, take on tough issues, and let the politics take care of themselves. ``If anybody's searching for a lesson from Massachusetts, I promise you, the answer is not to do nothing," Obama told the Senate Democrats. "We've got to finish the job on health care. We've got to finish the job on financial regulatory reform. We've got to finish the job, even though it's hard." Since his State of the Union address last week, Obama has offered a spirited defense of his agenda, his feisty demeanor an implicit promise of support for those Democrats who work with him. At a time when some might be thinking about parting ways with his agenda, Obama is pressing his case that now is not the time to abandon the ideals that swept him into office. While Democrats agree with Obama's broad goals, they do not agree with all it takes to achieve them – especially in his budget, which makes little short-term progress in deficit reduction yet calls for spending cuts in many programs.Lincoln is a dedicated proponent of fiscal responsibility. But she sharply denounced the cuts in farm subsidies that are so important to her state. That is not only good constituent service, but good 2010 politics in a state that voted heavily against Obama in the 2008 election. Wednesday's meeting with Obama gave Lincoln a televised opportunity to challenge Obama on a broader question. As one of eight Democrats hand-picked by party leaders to question the president, all but one up for re-election this year, Lincoln urged Obama to ``to push back against people in our own party that want extremes.'' Then, in short order, her campaign website featured a news report: ``Lincoln challenges Obama on liberal `extremes.'" Elsewhere around the country, Rep. Suzanne Kosmas — a freshman Democrat from a Republican leaning part of Florida — minced no words in complaining about Obama's proposed cuts to the NASA budget. The space industry is one of the largest employers in her district. ``The president's proposal lacks a bold vision for space exploration and begs for the type of leadership that he has described as critical for inspiring innovation for the 21st century,'' said Kosmas. In the swing state of Missouri, Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan wasted no time this week denouncing Obama's budget as profligate. ``I'm disappointed in the president's budget recommendation,'' she said. ``Missouri families have to balance their checkbooks and our government is no different.'' Democrats trumpet that split between their candidate and Obama as Carnahan tries to run as an outsider. But Republicans have tagged her ``Rubberstamp Robin'' for supporting Obama's health care bill and other congressional initiatives. Probably no vulnerable Democrat has more of a burden in defending Obama's budget than Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), the House Budget Committee Chairman who is facing a strong opponent in his Republican-leaning district. The National Republican Congressional Committee has already run an ad attacking him for his record in handling deficit-laden budgets. But Spratt has not shied from his association with the volatile issue. When Obama's budget was delivered to Capitol Hill Monday, Spratt joined in a ``photo op'' for its reception. The photo was run on a conservative blog under the headline: ``Budget now in Spratt's liberal hands.''