ATHERTON (AP) — Making a down payment on his vow to go all in for Democrats in 2014, President Barack Obama courted well-heeled donors in California on a two-day fundraising jaunt that required him to walk a fine line: Berate Republicans too much, and Obama could put fragile prospects for achieving his second-term goals in jeopardy.
Obama's California swing kicked off a concerted effort to help his party win back the House and keep its Senate majority next year. It's a mission that, if successful, would improve his playing field and help him secure his legacy during his final two years in office, a lame-duck period in which a president's influence quickly ebbs.
Obama struck a careful balance on Thursday, telling donors at a luncheon in Silicon Valley that he would continue to reach out to Republicans to advance the interests of the middle class and those aspiring to join it.
"Having said that, though, there are still some really big arguments that we are having in Washington," Obama said. "And I believe that Democrats represent those values."
Obama's appearance at the lunch, where supporters paid $1,000 to attend or $5,000 for a photo with the president, capped a four-event fundraising blitz that started on Wednesday in San Francisco, where Obama raised $3.25 million for the House Democrats' campaign committee.
The short-term pitfalls of the campaign effort are clear. Obama has spent much of the past month pursuing warmer relations with Republicans in Congress whose votes he needs to enact his agenda. Republicans on the receiving end of Obama's ongoing "charm offensive" — the president will dine with Senate Republicans next week for a second time — say his partisan tone when he leaves Washington makes them question his sincerity when he says he's willing to meet Republicans halfway.
"He's doing a pretty lousy job of it," Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican Party, said in an interview. "If he was someone who was as conciliatory as he proclaims to be, you would think he would have a few decent relationships with Republicans, but he doesn't. Instead, he spends most of his time campaigning."
White House officials are mindful of the balancing act Obama must carry out to avoid undermining relations with Republican lawmakers when he hits the campaign trail for Democrats.
"The president's appeal to his supporters won't interfere with his continued efforts to work with Republicans to move that agenda through the Congress," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Obama sought to drive that point home on Thursday to an intimate gathering of donors who paid $32,400 per person to attend a brunch in the ritzy town of Atherton, near Stanford University, benefiting the Democratic National Committee. Although political gridlock continues to be "a great source of frustration" for him, Obama said, Americans are not as divided as Washington makes it seem.
"Our policies, the ones that we presented, traditionally would be considered pretty bipartisan," Obama said. "There's nothing particularly Democratic about road-building or basic science or environmental protection."
Almost immediately after winning re-election in November, Obama made clear he would put his full weight behind efforts to elect Democrats in the 2014 midterms, upping his commitment from previous years. During Obama's first term, some Democrats complained he didn't do enough to help — especially in 2010, when Democrats lost control of the House.
This time, Democratic officials say, Obama will headline at least 20 fundraisers: six for House Democrats, six for Senate Democrats and two joint House-Senate events, plus another half-dozen or so for the Democratic National Committee, which is still retiring the debt it racked up last year helping Obama win a second term.
Jim Messina, Obama's 2012 campaign manager, personally delivered the commitment for the House fundraisers in February to Rep. Steve Israel, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversations were private.
Israel and House Minority Leader Pelosi, D-Calif., joined Obama for the fundraisers on Wednesday, where Obama told donors he'd be able to "get a whole lot more done" with Pelosi in charge of a Democratic-controlled House.
But accolades to his Democratic colleagues aside, Obama refrained from lobbing partisan barbs at Republicans in his remarks on Wednesday, which were closed to cameras but open to a small group of reporters. Instead, Obama implored donors to get behind candidates who see eye to eye with him on climate change, research spending, public works projects and early childhood education.
"I'm going to need some help," Obama said.
The rhetoric was not so inclusive from Israel, the House Democrats' campaign chief. After Obama spoke and reporters were ushered out, Israel described Republicans as full of "obstruction, chaos, inflexibility and intolerance," according to a campaign committee official who relayed some of his remarks.
Democrats need to pick up 17 seats next year to regain control of the House — no small feat, considering that a president's party tends to lose House seats in the midterms during a second term. In the Senate, Democrats are defending a daunting 21 seats, including seven in largely rural states where Republican Mitt Romney defeated Obama last year. Republicans must flip just six seats to claim the majority.
Vice President Joe Biden, too, is expected to play a major role in helping Democrats defeat their GOP challengers. Israel told supporters at an annual conference last month that Biden has been busy making calls to potential candidates to recruit them to run.
Republican skepticism that Obama is serious about wanting to mend fences with GOP lawmakers was bolstered earlier this year when the president, fresh off his high-intensity re-election, blasted Republicans in campaign-style events for blocking his preferred approach to averting the sequester, the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that kicked in on March 1. Republicans say it felt like the 2012 campaign never ended, making it harder to take Obama's recent outreach at face value.
"I'll admit, it's very difficult to do both. That's why he shouldn't do both," said Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., the vice chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "He needs to put the campaign rhetoric aside, roll up his sleeves and demonstrate a willingness to work with House Republicans on tax reform, entitlement reform and the problems driving our debt."
"I just don't get the sense that his little outreach was anything more than a charade," Griffin added.
Sara Taylor Fagen, the former political director for President George W. Bush, said there's no reason a president can't carry out his duties to his party and his country simultaneously. But she said an administration gets in trouble when the president doesn't strike the right balance or adopts too harsh a tone.
"You have an obligation to help your party win seats. You want to help them win," Fagen said. "You don't necessarily want to draw a lot of attention to the fact you're spending your evening talking about building the party."