Obama looks for new approach in corralling Congress 

With his agenda and the Democratic Party's political future on the line, President Obama is working on his legislative game.

Widely criticized for his hands-off approach on health care reform and limited grasp of the brutal partisan feuds in Congress that helped stall his agenda, Obama is starting over with a more hands-on approach to legislation.

"Let's face it, you guys are a little difficult to manage," the president told Senate Democrats at a Wednesday strategy session.

The first test of his new approach will be the federal budget Obama sent to Congress earlier this week. Already, members of both parties are balking at the $3.8 trillion price tag and record high $1.6 trillion projected deficit.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, warned the president will need more than just a new approach to lawmaking to score bipartisan support.

"The president and Democratic leaders think their political problems are that they haven't focused their message accurately," Boehner said. "It's not the message that the American people are concerned about, it's what [they] are doing."

Obama represented Illinois in the Senate from January 2005 until he was elected president in November 2008, but much of his time was spent campaigning.

In pushing for health care reform, the White House made a strategic decision to avoid the mistakes of Clinton-era reform by allowing lawmakers to craft a plan, rather than sending one to Congress already drafted.

The results included a muddled, inconsistent message from the administration about what the president wanted in the bill, followed by polls showing Americans increasingly distrustful of the plan.

Since the presumed demise of health care following the election of Republican Scott Brown to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat, Obama has reconfigured his priorities.

Now, getting a jobs bill done is the top legislative priority of the White House, followed by health care with an emissions bill trailing behind.

The new lineup reflects an election year imperative for Obama and the Democratic Party, since voters overwhelmingly list jobs and the economy as their own top priorities.

Keeping health care on the list reflects Obama's determination to continue working on the issue and to avoid having to accept a legislative defeat. But the revised priorities also reflect a deeper understanding of the politics of Congress.

"I think he has become more sensitive to the tensions between the House and Senate, and he is building that into his equation," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.

Even so, Obama faces tough odds pushing a substantial agenda in a congressional election year, when lawmakers are in self-protection mode. He urged Senate Democrats to stick with him.

"All that's changed in the last two weeks is that our party's gone from having the largest Senate majority in a generation to the second-largest Senate majority in a generation," Obama said. "We still have to lead."

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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