WASHINGTON — In a closed-door meeting with President Obama and scores of members of the House Democratic caucus at the Capitol on Wednesday, a U.S. Representative from Colorado stood up to ask a question about a controversial former member of the administration. Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Golden wanted to know Obama’s opinion of Lawrence Summers, whose name has been floated as a candidate for Chairman of the Federal Reserve.
“The president said he has not made any decision, but he made it clear he was giving a defense of Summers,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said in an interview Wednesday.
Cummings seemed to imply that Perlmutter’s question was critical of Summers. According to media reports, some House Democrats said Perlmutter’s question adopted a critical tone, while others said it did not.
The Democratic caucus is split between Summers and Janet Yellen, vice chairwoman of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve, as the successor to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, who is expected to retire at the end of his term in January.
Summers has attracted flak from liberal Democrats, who say he helped precipitate the financial crisis of 2008. As Secretary of the Treasury, in 1999 he supported the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, a 1933 law that had separated commercial and investment banking. As Deputy Treasury Secretary, in 1998 he opposed increased regulations on the derivatives market.
Perlmutter did not mention Summers in an interview immediately after the meeting Wednesday morning. But he praised Obama’s speech July 24 at Knox College in Galesburg, NY, which noted the administration had “put in place tough new rules on the big banks” as well as mortgage lenders and credit card companies.
“He referred to his speech at Galesburg and the fact that we’ve got to rebuild the middle class,” Perlmutter said of Obama’s remarks to lawmakers.
Seeking to unify members of his party around an economic message, Obama arrived at the Capitol Wednesday for rare meetings with House and Senate Democrats.
“Jobs. Middle class. Growth,” the Democratic president said, jutting his left hand for emphasis, to reporters after an hour-long meeting with Senate Democrats in the Lyndon B. Johnson Room.
Obama’s tack to the center rhetorically may be aimed at shoring up support among independent voters. Democrats believe a re-focus on the economy will help them at the polls next year.
According to a recent Rasmussen Reports poll, political independents trust Republicans more than Democrats to handle the economy by a wide 47 percent to 27 percent margin. The survey of 1,000 likely voters was conducted between July 18 and July 19. The Rasmussen results contrast with those of a March 2013 ABC-Washington Post poll, which gave President Obama a 44 percent to 40 percent edge over Republicans on the economy.
With the 2014 mid-term elections more than a year away, a senior House Democratic aide added that the fortunes of the party’s candidates will be tied to Obama’s job-approval ratings. The latest RealClearPolitics average has the Democratic President at 44.8. Although the number has increased in recent weeks, it remains below the 50-percent threshold.
After the meeting, Democratic senators criticized Republicans for opposing the President’s new health-care law, a reduction in the corporate tax rate, and cuts to domestic spending programs. “(Obama’s) working with people who think gridlock is success,” Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
Republicans responded in kind. “If there’s anyone in this country who has not lost patience with his lectures, you’d probably find them in the Democratic caucus,” a senior GOP aide said.
Certainly, some Republicans are divided on economics. Sen. John McCain, who popped in briefly to the Senate Democrats’ meeting with Obama, recently quipped that choosing between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky in a presidential matchup would be a “tough choice.”
Yet Democrats too are divided.
Regulating the bank and mortgage industries is one division. Perlmutter’s question to Obama shows that some Democrats favor stricter federal regulations, while others support the status quo or favor loosening regulations.
Completing the Keystone XL pipeline is another. In March of this year, Colorado’s two Democratic senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, voted on different sides of the issue.
According to King, Obama did not come down on one side or the other, as he did not announce the administration’s position on proposed pipeline extension, which would run from Alberta, Canada to Texas.
With Congress’ five-week recess scheduled to begin Aug. 2, both parties will appeal to activists in their camp and ordinary voters that their economic message is better.