WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's army of canvassers fanned out across the nation over the weekend to drum up support for his $3.55 trillion budget, but they had no noticeable impact on members of Congress, who on Monday said they were largely unaware of the effort.
"News to me," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, a House Budget Committee member, of the canvassing. Later, his staff said that his office had heard from about 100 voters.
The president's lieutenants tried to open a new front in the "Obama revolution," the grassroots mobilization that propelled the once little-known Illinois senator to the White House last year. David Plouffe, who ran Obama's campaign, now runs "Organizing for America" out of the Democratic National Committee. It uses the same Web-based tactics that won the presidency to mobilize public opinion behind Obama's initiatives in a bid to redefine "business as usual" in Washington.
"The budget that passes Congress has the potential to take our country in a truly new direction — the kind of change we all worked so hard for," Plouffe said in an e-mail alert to Obama followers last week. He asked them to rally people in their hometowns behind Obama's budget.
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Over the weekend, Obama supporters knocked on an estimated 1 million doors in all 50 states. Canvassers asked people to sign a two-point pledge saying that they support Obama's "bold approach for renewing America's economy," and that they'll ask family, friends and neighbors to back it.
"How many of these folks have read the budget?" wondered Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., a House Financial Services Committee member.
Congressional committees will start rewriting Obama's budget this week. Obama's biggest Capitol Hill problem appears to be conservative and moderate Democrats, who are challenging his fiscal 2010 budget blueprint.
Some lawmakers saw value in the canvassing.
"Anything that raises the profile of the challenges we face is very important," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., a Budget Committee member.
Trying to mobilize voters to rally behind a complex, multi-trillion dollar budget that Congress will take months to enact is a different task from winning votes for a presidential candidate.
"You live in Terre Haute, Indiana, or suburban Denver, and someone you don't know knocks on the door and talks politics — the election is over," said Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Connecticut. "I'm not sure if it will make a big difference."
Still, Brown concedes that it's early enough in Obama's presidency and he's still popular enough that some people will listen and give Obama "the benefit of the doubt" on his agenda.
"They're scared about their income future," Brown said.
The group Obama most needs to lobby this week are the approximately 51 conservative-to-moderate Democrats in the House of Representatives and the 16 in the Senate. Their numbers are big enough in both chambers to deny the president the majorities he needs to win budget approval, assuming near-unanimous Republican opposition as well.
Centrist Democrats disagree with Obama's plan to increase spending on most domestic programs by about 9 percent next year. They want no spending increase.
Congress has to "develop a realistic plan for putting our country back on a path to fiscal responsibility," said Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., a leader of the moderate Democratic Blue Dog Coalition. "It is vital that we begin working to bring our books back to balance, using tools such as (mandatory) pay-as-you-go budgeting."
Blue Dogs were careful not to criticize Obama, but said they've felt little pressure from the canvassing.
Rep. Melissa Bean, D-Ill., once a coalition member but now vice-chair of the New Democrat Coalition, said she wasn't aware of the effort and has heard no response to it from her district.
Meanwhile, established liberal groups are gearing up to stop the Blue Dogs in more traditional ways. The Campaign for America's Future and other groups have scheduled a joint news conference for Tuesday to announce what they term a "new campaign to dog the Blue Dogs."
In a statement, they said that "President Obama is back in campaign mode as he pushes for a budget proposal that has faced opposition from a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Evan Bayh," a moderate from Indiana.
In addition, Obama is expected to tout his budget on Tuesday night in a prime-time news conference.
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