Obama urged to focus and lead

Baltimore Sun

Democrats in Washington seldom criticized President Barack Obama during his first year in office. But if lawmakers from Maryland are any indication, leading members of his party think it's time for him to step up his game.

Obama has tried to take on too many problems, some Marylanders say. And as he shifts emphasis in an election year, they worry that he could wind up punishing a portion of the Democratic base.

"I think we pushed the agenda way too quick and tried to do too much too soon, because we were in the majority and he had the bully pulpit. And in the end it backfired. The people lost confidence," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County.

The public's "main issue was the economy and jobs," Ruppersberger said, "and the focus should have been on the economy and jobs, rather than the focus on health care and also energy."

A key component of Obama's 9 p.m. State of the Union speech - a three-year freeze on nonsecurity spending - won praise from centrists, including Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil, the only Marylander in the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition.

But the proposal is prompting questions among liberals, some of Obama's earliest and most enthusiastic supporters. They fear that it is too early to start reducing government stimulus and that lower-income Americans, a largely Democratic constituency, could get hurt.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who was co-chairman of the Obama campaign in Maryland, said he is "extremely concerned" about the proposed freeze on one-sixth of the federal budget. Programs subject to cuts include education, energy, justice, science, housing and health and human services.

"I think a lot of people who already are having a tough time will have a tougher time," the Baltimore Democrat said.

Cummings said Obama must do a better job of convincing Americans that he understands the day-to-day problems they're facing amid the economic crisis.

The issues that Obama has tackled - including a deep economic downturn, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, overhauling health care and addressing climate change - "took him away from clearly letting people know that he feels their pain," Cummings said. "Deep down in my heart, I believe he feels it. But he's got to express it."

A top Obama aide said the president's budget-cutting decisions were made with an eye toward sparing programs that create jobs and help "people who need the most help right now." Details will be released Monday.

"The liberal criticisms will be somewhat muted when they actually see the details," said Rob Nabors, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. "Right now, people are all afraid that their favorite program has been gutted."

Obama's spending cap would effectively mean a cut in some areas, since spending would not be allowed to rise for inflation. National defense and mandatory benefits programs, including Medicare and Social Security, would not be affected.

Within agencies subject to the freeze, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, individual programs could get more money while others are trimmed.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said she supports Obama's freeze, though she is "not enthusiastic about it. This is tough medicine."

The Baltimore Democrat said a public backlash against administration initiatives might well have caught Obama by surprise, but she faulted "obstructionist" Republican tactics, which stymied action by Congress, rather than the president.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who voted in favor of Obama's position 98.7 percent of the time last year, according to Congressional Quarterly - more than any other Marylander - has almost never taken issue with the president, at least in public. But he issued a statement last week that appeared to raise concerns about the administration's troubled efforts to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"Further delays would not be helpful to our national security or our worldwide efforts to combat terrorists like al-Qaida," Cardin said.

"I wouldn't say I'm frustrated," the senator said in a phone interview, but Obama "needs to have a process in place" to deal with the detainee problem in a way that will generate more international support.

Cardin said Obama's address to Congress and the nation is "about the president showing that he is going to take the lead and will change the way that Washington deals with problems."

The jobs issue is "critically important," Cardin said. But Obama also must "show leadership to get the health care issue resolved."

Resolving that problem won't be easy, with Democrats divided on the best solution and Republicans unanimously opposed. House Democrats were to meet again Tuesday night, and the president has said that he still wants to pursue a comprehensive plan.

"Frankly, we're trying to figure out what is possible," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat.

The overhaul measure might well be dead, after the loss of a Democratic Senate seat in Massachusetts, which makes it easier for Republicans to block further action.

"At this point, I don't see that the votes are there for it," Ruppersberger said. "We moved too quick and the Democrats lost control of the message, and the health care bill started to scare a lot of the rank and file." The new strategy will probably be to change the health care system "in small pieces."

Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore County, who has supported Obama's agenda more often than other House members from Maryland, said the president's economic policies wound up tilting too heavily in favor of big banks and Wall Street at the expense of middle-class families and small businesses.

"It wasn't as balanced a focus as it could have been," said Sarbanes, who said he shares the wariness of other liberals who don't want the administration to pull back prematurely on federal stimulus spending.

He said the growing willingness of Democratic politicians to criticize Obama is a manifestation of the surge in public anger and resentment. The voter outrage has been triggered by the rapid return of pre-recession-level bonuses on Wall Street and lucrative compensation packages at big financial institutions, while millions of ordinary Americans continue to suffer and the jobless rate is 10 percent.

"There is nothing like those kinds of expressions on the part of the public to get us focused like a laser, and I hope to see in the president's speech a recognition of that," Sarbanes said.

Kratovil, the only Marylander in Congress whose job appears to be in jeopardy this year, said it was not "productive to be critical of the president." But he said that Democrats had "gotten off track" by failing to stay focused on the needs of the middle class.

Rep. Donna Edwards, the most liberal member of the state's delegation in Congress, said she wanted to hear more about Obama's spending freeze.

"My major concern is that we make certain that those people who are the most vulnerable in this difficult economy are not placed in greater jeopardy," she said, while noting that the White House is indicating that the budget cuts are "going to be surgical in nature."

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