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Campaign for Obama's budget is widening

His allies' ads target districts led by conservative Democrats -- some of whom question the wisdom of the strategy, suggesting that it's divisive.

March 27, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — A campaign to persuade Republicans to support President Obama's budget is morphing into something broader, with the White House political machine and its allies now focusing pressure on conservative Democrats and anyone else who might be tempted to vote no.

Targeted Democrats are balking at some of the tactics -- a sign that campaign methods so effective in getting Obama elected may not easily transfer to the policy realm.

Earlier this month, ads underwritten by Obama allies were directed more narrowly against Republican lawmakers opposed to the president's budget. For example, a tax-exempt group called Americans United for Change ran an ad in recent weeks that mocked Republicans as simply saying no to the Obama agenda rather than producing alternatives.

This week, the group is running cable TV ads in what it describes as "12 targeted states represented by Republican and Democratic members of Congress."

Obama's fellow Democrats caution that the ads could backfire in swing districts populated with many conservative voters.

The liberal group is running radio and Internet ads focused on 10 Democratic members of the House and Senate considered potential "no" votes. The ads suggest phone calls to lawmakers urging them to vote for Obama's budget.

MoveOn has been in contact with the White House, including Obama aides Valerie Jarrett and Michael Strautmanis, to "keep them abreast of what we're doing," said Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.

A White House official said that mobilizing such outside groups is crucial to the president's agenda.

"Every single White House has had to build support for their ideas," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. "And we regularly meet with outside groups and explain what the bills are and ask them to be supportive and helpful. The other side has more money, and we need more grass roots and more people."

On a parallel track, Obama's campaign group, now called Organizing for America, is using ZIP Codes to reach supporters and ask them to call their districts' representatives in Congress. The organization also began airing a nationwide cable television ad Thursday in support of Obama's budget.

Last weekend, Obama campaign supporters fanned out across the country to get people to sign petitions supporting the basic goals of Obama's budget.

Some Democratic lawmakers contend that the ads won't work.

Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, said that the TV advertising would not influence his vote. And he questioned whether the ads were consistent with the president's promise of collaboration. Obama has told lawmakers that they should not be "potted plants" -- passing his budget intact without raising questions -- Bayh said.

The president echoed that point at his prime-time news conference Tuesday, telling a national audience: "We never expected when we printed out our budget that they would simply Xerox it and vote on it."

If that's the case, Bayh asked, why are Obama allies running ads that effectively direct members to vote for the president's budget?

"The president has said this is a cooperative process," Bayh said in an interview. "Some of these groups running ads are not in sync with the president."

Members of Congress are sensitive about ads in their districts, and some say the MoveOn commercials strike a counterproductive partisan note.

One MoveOn ad, for example, is running in Democratic Rep. Christopher Carney's northeast Pennsylvania district. The district voted for Republican John McCain over Obama, and for President Bush over Democrat John F. Kerry four years earlier.

The MoveOn ad is critical of "Bush tax cuts." It urges support for "the Obama budget." In a conservative district like Carney's, an ad with an overt anti-Bush message could alienate voters, the congressman's office contends.

A Carney aide said: "This type of ultra-partisan rhetoric is not productive. There is a way to frame the budget that would pressure us, but this frame does not pressure us at all."

Carney, a member of the House's fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, has not announced a position on Obama's budget.

Another member targeted in the MoveOn ad, western Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire, said the commercial would not sway him.

Asked whether the White House should have urged the group to pull the ad, Altmire said: "I'll leave it to the White House to decide their own political strategy. . . . What influences me is what I hear from constituents."

Altmire voiced skepticism about Obama's budget. The White House's priority should be ending the economic crisis, not paying for programs that will drive up the debt, he said.

"We're doing more harm than good by simply adding on to the mountain of debt that we have by pushing these programs now," Altmire said.

Another Obama tactic is to exert grass-roots pressure on legislators.

Organizing for America is adopting a policy focus keyed to Obama's agenda. But project volunteers are uncertain whether the methods that worked in the 2008 campaign are applicable in this context. There were successes last weekend in getting people to sign petitions, but rallying people behind a budget can be a tough sell.

Kris Schultz of Concord, N.H., took part in the effort to pick up signatures endorsing the president's budget. She was pleased with the results. But she added that it's tough to get fellow volunteers excited about a Washington political system that is subject to gridlock, as opposed to an election with a clear endpoint.

"We get frustrated seeing how the sausage is made," Schultz said.


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