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Obama Needs to Tone Muscle

President Barack Obama showed this weekend that he still has a lot of pull on Capitol Hill, but he seems to be exercising his influence at all the wrong times.

Though Obama can expect an outwardly warm reception from his party when he delivers his State of the Union address tonight, his decision to use the speech to call for a spending freeze, his full-court press for reconfirmation of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and his arms-length approach to much of the politically crippling health care debate have hardly been welcomed by House and Senate Democrats.

Democrats said the White House’s fumbling of the public relations war on health care coupled with the public perception that the governing party took its eye off the country’s economic troubles contributed to the loss of the Senate Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority in last week’s Massachusetts special election.

“In the most general sense, they have had the most to do with establishing the political environment that we now find ourselves in, because they picked health care for their first year,— said one senior Senate Democratic aide, who added that the mood of Democrats is “not anger, just frustration.—

But despite that frustration, Senate Democratic leaders appeared to jump when Obama asked after it became clear Bernanke’s confirmation to a second four-year term was in peril.

Many Democrats said they were hoping to use Bernanke’s nomination to send a message to both the White House and the public that they were not satisfied with the administration’s handling of the economy. But Obama and other White House officials, in phone calls over the weekend, convinced Democratic leaders and rank-and-filers alike that failing to reconfirm the architect of the federal financial industry bailouts would cause the stock market to tank.

“It’s not that they’re not focused on the economy. It’s just not in a way that’s resonating with people,— another Senate Democratic aide said of the White House. “Even if Bernanke is confirmed, [Senators’ protests are] useful in that it’s illustrating to everyone in the White House that we need to redouble our efforts here.—

Members were reluctant to publicly criticize the White House or Obama but privately acknowledged a desire to see Obama lead the charge on the economy by changing his advisers, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and chief White House economic adviser Larry Summers.

Asked about his dissatisfaction with the White House’s handling of the economy, the lead opponent of Bernanke’s nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said: “I don’t want to go into a long harangue against the president. Right now I’m focusing on seeing if we can defeat this nomination and have the president give us a much better nominee who can represent small business and the middle class.— Sanders caucuses with Democrats.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who also opposes Bernanke, also declined to take issue with the administration but indicated he is looking for a new approach to the nation’s fiscal situation.

“I’ve been focused on this particular nomination,— Merkley said. “I think you have to have economic leaders that are going to push into, lean into the wind if you will. … Where we go needs to be an economy built to work for working families.—

On Bernanke, Senators “recoiled at the thought that they were going to have to vouch for something that symbolically would have appeared to be an endorsement of the status quo,— the senior Senate Democratic aide said. The aide added that Bernanke “has the misfortune of finding himself in the middle of a peak in mistrust between the Hill and the White House.—

One Democratic source described White House officials as “tone-deaf, in a sense— because they have used their influence to push unpopular issues with Democrats but not to unite the majority around proposals that it already agrees on.

“If Obama had intervened more in the health care debate, it would have ended sooner,— the source said.

Indeed, the length of the health care debate, particularly in the Senate, added to voters’ perceptions that Congress and the president were not focused on the 10 percent jobless rate or other priorities. And because the Senate did not pass a bill until Christmas Eve, Sen.-elect Scott Brown’s (R) upset win in Massachusetts had the effect of throwing the entire health care effort into doubt, given he will replace a Democratic vote that is essential to preventing Republicans from filibustering a conference report.

Some Democrats — particularly centrists — also fault Obama for not being more forceful in pushing for a bipartisan measure, especially one that Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) would support. Obama expressed some support for Snowe’s health care proposals last summer but largely left it to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to craft a deal. Reid decided to rely on the votes of all 60 Democrats, rather than adopting Snowe’s approach.

When the White House finally got involved in the process, it proved to be too late, other Democrats said. Though Obama spent days in early January negotiating a compromise bill with House and Senate leaders, those talks were for naught when Brown won and became the 41st GOP Senator. Now, Democrats say, Obama can redeem himself and save health care by strongly identifying and pushing his preference on how to move it forward under the new Senate math.

“The only way out of this mess is if the White House puts some muscle behind an option and pushes it,— the Democratic source said. “The White House can’t continue to sit on the sidelines and expect Congress to continue to solve its problems.—

Meanwhile, Obama committed another perceived sin when it comes to his relations with Congress this week, as Senators reacted coolly to his expected push for a freeze on discretionary spending that is not associated with national security.

Reid made it clear to reporters that he was not thrilled with the idea and that he wasn’t even consulted on an issue that is constitutionally within the purview of Congress.

“I’ve heard little bits and pieces about the spending freeze,— Reid told reporters. “We’ll have to look and see what the president’s talking about cutting.—

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