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Obama Takes Up Trio of Issues Dear to Base

As the midterm election season creeps in, President Barack Obama is climbing out from under the health care reform debate to remind his Democratic base that he hasn’t forgotten about their priorities, despite broken promises about delivering in his first year in office.

Issues near and dear to core Democratic factions — immigration reform, climate change and trade policy reform — were all on the president’s schedule this week. Obama talked tough on each of these fronts during his 2008 campaign but has been unable chalk up successes. In the case of immigration, he had to concede on a promise to pass comprehensive reform in his first year.

But now, with the final moves on health care reform punted to Congress, Obama seems intent on proving what many in his administration like to say is one of his strongest suits: his ability to walk and chew gum at the same time.

On Tuesday, Obama summoned a bipartisan group of Senators to the White House to revive discussions on climate change legislation. He is meeting today with Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to discuss their efforts to advance immigration reform legislation, and throughout this week, administration officials have been working with House Democrats to make sure they are comfortable with emerging trade policies.

“He’s not backing off anything,” Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) said. “There’s no question” that Obama is able to multitask, and do it successfully.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that Obama called the immigration and climate change meetings this week because they are issues that he still wants to advance this year.

“The president wants to get an update from bipartisan lawmakers in the House and Senate on a series of proposals and get an idea of where those are,” Gibbs said. He said it is “certainly possible” to take on controversial cap-and-trade legislation this year.

The White House’s gestures on each of these fronts have created glimmers of hope for some Democrats who feel Obama has ignored their issues for too long.

“I’m happy to know of the president’s renewed interest in immigration reform,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said.

Gutierrez, a leading proponent of reform, has been critical of Obama for campaigning on the issue but then backing off after taking office. He said he hoped today’s meeting with Schumer and Graham would lead to a bipartisan bill by the end of the month and a clear time frame for marking up the bill in committee.

“This is the story of the candidate Obama not being one and the same as the President Obama,” Gutierrez said. “It’s about keeping campaign promises. That’s what this is about.”

Gutierrez is helping to organize a March 21 rally in Washington, D.C., to demand action on immigration. The rally, which he said is expected to draw tens of thousands of people, was borne out of frustration with “the president’s lackadaisical and almost meaningless” mention of immigration reform in his State of the Union address, Gutierrez said.

Still, the Illinois lawmaker said he remains hopeful that Obama will move this issue this year, something he said is “absolutely” politically feasible.

House proponents of climate change legislation say they don’t know why Obama decided to revisit the issue this week, but that it shows the issue remains a priority.

Some people have talked about the issue being “dead and buried,” but the meeting shows that Obama “really, truly wants to get this done,” said an aide to a House proponent of climate change legislation.

The aide said House lawmakers aren’t frustrated that Obama hasn’t been out front on the issue because they believe he has been committed to the issue all along and just sidelined by health care and emergency matters.

Obama is definitely scoring points with liberal Democrats on the trade front, a major contrast to where he stood with them a year ago.

Between sending U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to meet with House Democrats to find common ground on trade policies and then announcing a deal with Canada allowing U.S. businesses to bid on Canadian government procurement and vice versa, Obama has come a long way since angering liberals last year after signaling an interest in advancing leftover trade deals from the Bush administration.

On Wednesday, Obama dispatched Kirk to the House “to basically be a punching bag on trade,” and in doing so, he allayed liberal concerns about free trade, said one aide to a Democrat active on the trade front. Liberals are “definitely feeling happier.”

The aide also applauded Obama for “putting a big focus on making sure Members feel good about trade negotiations” that will take place next week in a transpacific economic trade conference in Asia.

Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), chairman of the House Trade Working Group, said the meeting with Kirk was “an encouraging sign that this administration is committed to consulting with Congress on their trade agenda.”

And Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), also in the meeting, said their exchange was “very positive.”

Kirk left the meeting with glowing remarks. He vowed in a statement to “continue to regularly consult” with House and Senate lawmakers about trade policies.

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