By JOSH LEDERMAN, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Deliberating behind closed doors, President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats sought ways to keep their economic agenda for 2014 on track despite the encroaching distractions of a heated election year.
Obama and top aides spent more than 90 minutes Wednesday at a baseball stadium in Washington where Democratic senators were huddled for their annual retreat. A day earlier, Obama hosted House Democrats at the White House for a similar session aimed at rallying the party behind Obama's goals for the year.
Although the White House said neither session was focused on politics, the campaign by Democrats to protect their Senate majority and win seats in the House was not far from anyone's mind.
"He's the head of his party. Of course it's on his mind. But it is far from the only thing on his mind," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "What is principally on his mind is the opportunity available to us and available to him to advance an agenda that expands opportunity and rewards hard work."
At the private confab at Washington Nationals Park, Obama told senators he wants to see action this year to restore and expand economic opportunity for Americans, the White House said. Among Obama's priorities for Congress: a minimum wage increase to $10.10, a bigger tax credit for lower-income Americans and an expansion of educational programs.
Obama also emphasized how important it is that Democrats hold the Senate this year, said a Senate Democratic aide, who wasn't authorized to describe the private remarks and demanded anonymity. Democrats also discussed new estimates about the economic impact of Obama's health care law that have provided political fodder to Democrats and Republicans alike. A disagreement over moving ahead with new sanctions against Iran did not come up, the aide said.
Obama has acknowledged that longstanding Republican opposition to his economic initiatives is likely to carry over into this year, leaving in doubt the prospects for passing such bills through the GOP-controlled House. But Democrats argue that even if they don't succeed legislatively, voters will witness their attempts to strengthen the middle class and reward them on Election Day.
Democrats were expecting an additional boost from former President Bill Clinton, who was also set to address the group Wednesday. Besides being one of his party's top political strategists, Clinton remains popular in many of the conservative-leaning states where Obama has struggled.
Of the 53 Democratic senators, it's the nearly two dozen facing re-election this year who are causing jitters for Obama and the party. With control of the Senate at stake, many of those Democrats are actively seeking ways to distance themselves from a president who is deeply unpopular in their home states.
With prospects for capturing the House this year in doubt, Democrats have intensified their focus on the Senate, where their tenuous majority will be toppled in November if they lose more than five seats — out of 21 they are defending. Although Obama has had to rein in aspirations for ambitious second-term legislation due to Republican control of the House, his final years in office would be even more constrained were Democrats to lose the Senate.
Sensitive to the fact that many of Democrats' toughest races this year are in conservative-leaning states that voted against Obama in 2012, the White House and Democratic leadership so far have given wide latitude to Democrats who have publicized their disagreements with Obama. But the criticism also serves as a nagging reminder that Obama's ability to aid fellow Democrats this year is limited.
"I want him up in Alaska so I can show him where his policies haven't worked," Sen. Mark Begich said ahead of the meeting. "I'll drag him up there to show him what he needs to be doing. I don't need him campaigning for me."
The Alaska Democrat's re-election race is one of the toughest for Democrats this year.