Politics & Government

Does Obama's rise mean less clout for Democratic centrists?

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius addresses the media Monday at the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) session.
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius addresses the media Monday at the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) session. José M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune / MCT

CHICAGO — It helped launch the last Democratic president and has pushed and prodded every Democratic candidate since Bill Clinton to adopt its centrist positions on issues from budget discipline to welfare.

But when the Democratic Leadership Council met over the weekend in the shadow of Barack Obama's Chicago headquarters, he didn't bother to stop by.

Is it losing its clout? Its members hope not, sidestepping Obama's refusal to see them and politely urging him to consider their approaches.

"We asked him," said Al From, the founder of the group. "I hope he'll listen to some of the ideas we've talked about."

"He's been very, very busy," said Chicago Mayor Rich Daley, a key figure in the group. "He doesn't have to be at every meeting across the country. He has to take time out. It's important for his family."

Obama didn't attend last year's annual meeting of the centrist Democratic group either. The DLC was created in the 1980s to counter the party's liberal wing and was a strong advocate in the 1990s for issues such as welfare revisions and free trade, which Clinton embraced but many liberals denounced.

Obama was in Chicago on Sunday, but he took the day off as the centrist Democrats discussed such topics as energy policy and national security. He traveled to Missouri on Monday to give a speech about patriotism.

Aides declined to say why he didn't meet with the group, which included governors, mayors, state legislators and other local elected officials. Campaign aides said they met privately with some members, though two attendees mentioned as possible vice-presidential picks — Govs. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas — said they didn't meet with Obama or any of his aides while in town.

Obama has made some moves to appeal to the party's center since he clinched the Democratic nomination.

He recently took a pro-business position on legislation giving immunity to telecommunications companies that aided government spying on Americans. He also said he supported the right of individuals to own guns after a Supreme Curt decision knocked down the District of Columbia's ban on handguns.

But he hasn't gone as far as DLC types would like on other issues, such as advocating free trade, proposing spending cuts or acknowledging the military success of the buildup of U.S. troops in Iraq.

"He's going to have to come out with a fiscal discipline package" that includes spending reductions, From said in an interview.

On Iraq, From said, both Obama and Republican candidate John McCain "have to get away from the most rabid primary voters."

Sebelius said that Obama already was appealing to the political center in conservative, Republican-leaning states such as hers. Obama trails McCain by 9 percentage points in Kansas, she said; Democrat John Kerry lost the state in 2004 by 25 points.

Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee said that would be a "tough state" for Obama to win. But he urged Obama to go to a waffle restaurant there and find a way to reach rural, white working-class voters, who largely rejected him in the Democratic primaries.

"If you have something to say to them, it might not put you over the top in Tennessee, but it will put you over the top in places like Ohio and Missouri. ... I hope Senator Obama listens carefully to what the DLC has represented over the years."

On Sunday, Richardson noted that there are still divisions in the party but he urged unity for the sake of victory.

"There is still probably a need to heal a little bit," he said. "It may take a little time — hopefully not too much longer."


More on the Democratic Leadership Council.