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For Obama And Senate Democrats, The Goal Is Mutual Protection

Senate Democrats at the White House last fall during the government shutdown fight.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Senate Democrats at the White House last fall during the government shutdown fight.

For President Obama and Senate Democrats, who gathered in a White House meeting Wednesday, it's all about mutual aid at this point.

If Obama is to maintain any leverage in Congress, he needs Democrats to keep control of the Senate since the House appears likely to remain in Republican hands. And if his second term agenda has any hope of being achieved — such as tackling income inequality, overhauling immigration or reaching a durable nuclear deal with Iran — he'll need a Democratic Senate majority working side-by-side with him.

Democrats will have a tough time holding on to their slim majority (two independents caucus with the Democrats typically giving them 55 mostly reliable votes.)

That task has been made harder by the difficulties with the Affordable Care Act, which are being used in big money attacks on Senate Democrats — especially the most vulnerable ones from very red states.

What Senate Democrats need as much as anything from Obama is for him to raise money for them — something they haven't been able to count on from him in the past. They also need a coordinated message that might carry the day with skeptical voters in this midterm election year. And they the Obama administration to provide as little additional fodder as possible for potential Republican attack ads.

For much of his presidency, the relationship between Obama and congressional Democrats hasn't exactly been warm. The former senator now in the Oval Office has been criticized for not doing enough mingling with his former colleagues and for not communicating all that well with them, period.

The Wednesday evening White House meeting was meant to address that. And by all reports, the meeting was a success.

"The group discussed their shared goals for 2014, and the President expressed his desire to continue to work together to advance a number of our priorities for the year to strengthen our economy, create jobs and build the middle class," said a White House statement after the meeting.

According to one report, the president even had cocktails outside the East Room with the lawmakers. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it was a " wonderful meeting."

On MSNBC, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy said Obama told Democrats they had a positive message to take into the midterm elections — that the health law is improving and producing some good news stories. The president also said championing issues like a higher minimum wage and overhauling immigration puts them on the right side of those policies as far as a majority of voters are concerned, according to Murphy's account.

For Senate Democrats, what's most important is that the president is putting his fundraising muscle into the midterm elections. In 2013, he did as many as 30 fundraisers for congressional candidates, compared with just a few in 2010 and 2012.

Obama has also turned over the tasks of keeping lawmakers informed of his administration's thinking, and of being his eyes and ears on Capitol Hill, to respected former congressional staffers Phil Schiliro and Katie Beirne Fallon.

"I noted... Katie and [White House advisor] Dan Pfeiffer were already up briefing leadership staff on some of the themes and some of the particulars of the State of the Union address," said Jim Manley, a political strategist who was a top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid until 2010.

"I said to myself, 'Hmm, when I was there we usually only got a briefing after they had already leaked it all over the press.' So that was an improvement. More attention focused on the Hill signifies" the White House understands what it needs to do to give itself and Senate Democrats the best chance possible of success going forward, he said.

Of course, some Senate Democrats — especially four who are trying to win re-election in red states — would prefer to keep as much daylight as possible between themselves and a president with low job approval ratings. They are Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

Republicans, for instance, noted that Hagan didn't appear with Obama at an economic event in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday. They vowed to link Hagan to Obama's agenda as often as possible.

"We understand why Kay Hagan and Mary Landrieu are avoiding the President at all costs; it's the " Carnahan lesson" from the 2010 midterms," the National Republican Senatorial Committee said in a Wednesday update. That was a reference to Robin Carnahan of Missouri who failed to win a Senate seat in that Tea Party wave midterm election.

"The problem for Hagan, Landrieu and others like Mark Begich, Jeanne Shaheen [of New Hampshire], Mark Pryor, Bruce Braley [running for Iowa's open seat] and Gary Peters [running for Michigan's open seat] is that they own the unpopular agenda, making it impossible to distance from it no matter how much hide and seek they play with the President."

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.