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Obama seeks to ease election-year strains with Democrats

Source: Reuters - Fri, 14 Feb 2014 12:00 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(Repeats story that appeared on Feb 13 with no changes)

* Obama, House Democrats have Valentine's Day date

* Some Democrats want to avoid Obama on campaign trail

* President remains key to rallying base, raising cash

By Thomas Ferraro

CAMBRIDGE, Md., Feb 14 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats in the House of Representatives face a key question when they meet on Friday, Valentine's Day: how much love do they dare show each other before the November elections.

Obama will address House Democrats on the final day of their three-day retreat in this waterfront town, which has lawmakers buzzing about policy and politics and edgy about their Election Day chances.

"The president recognizes that there's some tension," said Democratic Representative John Larson of Connecticut.

With Obama's approval ratings down to about 43 percent and the president still struggling with criticism of the troubled rollout of his signature healthcare law, some Democrats up for reelection do not want to be seen with the president at campaign events in their states.

At a private meeting with Senate Democrats in Washington last week, Obama said he understood and did not feel insulted, said one senator, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"The president realizes some Democrats will have a better chance of winning without him around," the senator said.

All 435 House seats along with 36 of the 100 Senate seats are up for grabs in the November election.

Republicans are expected to retain the House, which they now control 232-200, with three vacancies. They also hope to seize control of the Senate, which Democrats hold, 55-45.

Regardless of concerns about Obama, he will help his party rally its liberal base, raise money and make its case to voters.

In Cambridge, Democrats have been discussing their policy agenda, which includes raising the minimum wage and taking other steps to reduce the gap between the rich and poor.

Democrats have applauded Obama for vowing to accomplish some goals through executive actions if Republicans resist. But Democrats have expressed frustration that the president does not always show a lot of fire.

Their meeting with Obama on Friday, a portion of which will be open to the news media, follows a private session last week at the White House.

Several of those who attended that private session said both sides showed some tough love and frustration, along with some frank and warm exchanges. They said a number of House Democrats lined up to ask Obama questions and challenge him on domestic as well as foreign policies.

Representative Larson recalled that one lawmaker asked Obama why he did not fire anyone for the botched rollout of his healthcare program. He said the president responded: "'Because it's my responsibility. We messed up. My bad. But we'll fix it. You have my word.' He could not have been more blunt."

The president took questions for about 45 minutes and then, in a rarity for him, hung around for another hour to talk with members one on one.

"It was a good session," said Democratic Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia. "Sometimes it takes tension between friends in order for the best policy to emerge."

On Friday, Obama may face questions about his bid for expanded trade authority, which Democratic critics fear could lead to deals that cost Americans jobs.

Obama and his Democrats have had an often rocky relationship since shortly after he took office in January 2009. They came together in 2012 when Obama won a second term and Democrats increased their majority in the Senate and wrested a few seats back from Republicans in the House.

In 2012, Democrats running for the House actually got more votes nationwide than Republicans. But because of how the districts were drawn, Republicans still won a majority of the 435 seats and maintained their control of the chamber.

This year, Democrats face a new problem.

Traditionally, the party of a president loses seats in the mid-term election of the president's second term, largely due to some voter fatigue with the incumbent.

According to the Gallup polling firm, since 1946, when presidents were above 50 percent approval, their party loses an average of 14 House seats in mid-term elections, When the president's approval is below 50 percent, like Obama's is now, his party loses an average of 36 seats.

Since Obama's first term, Democrats have complained that he often seemed more interested in placating Republicans than his own party, such as in negotiating parameters of his healthcare plan and agreeing to deep spending cuts in 2011.

When healthcare reform was debated in 2009 and 2010, many Democrats wanted to include a "public option", a federally run insurance agency. But Obama, hoping to woo some Republicans who opposed the public option, dropped the idea. The 2010 Affordable Care Act passed without a single Republican vote.

Democrats also complain that Obama has not always kept them abreast of his plans, such as last year when he backed a proposal to trim the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security benefits. Many in his party rejected the idea.

Republicans have sought to make Obamacare the top election-year issue, insisting it is an unpopular disaster.

Yet Democrat were encouraged by word this week that the number of people who have enrolled in its private health plans rose to 3.3 million in recent months, providing evidence that the drive to cover the uninsured is gaining steam.

Democratic Representative Henry Waxman of California, one of Obama's biggest backers, brushes off complaints by colleagues about the president.

"Whether they want him in their district or not is each candidate's decision," he said. "But they appreciate the fact that he is going to go out there and raise the money for these campaigns. It is essential. He has the bully pulpit." (Editing by Caren Bohan and David Gregorio)

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