In a foray that underscored the tough reelection battle facing Sen. Barbara Boxer, President Obama visited Los Angeles on Monday for a set of fundraisers expected to raise nearly $3.5 million for the three-term senator and the Democratic National Committee.
Obama mixed support for Boxer with a defense of his own leadership, arguing that while there would be "some hard days ahead" for the nation, signs of progress abound: the economy is expanding, businesses have begun hiring and tax revenue is edging up.
"Here's the main message I have for all of you — change is coming, change has come," Obama told guests at a reception at the California Science Center in Exposition Park. "We made a series of decisions that were not always popular but were the right thing to do. Nobody is tougher and nobody is more determined to do the right thing, even in the face of intense opposition, than Barbara Boxer."
The Los Angeles events were the latest in a rapidly accelerating fundraising schedule for the president, who has been traveling across the nation to help vulnerable Democrats such as Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Obama's trip was denounced by Republicans, who faulted him for meeting with wealthy supporters but not holding a single public event for the state's residents, who have been hit hard by the recession. California's unemployment rate rose slightly, to 12.6% in March.
Carly Fiorina, one of the Republicans competing to challenge Boxer in the fall, called on the DNC to reimburse taxpayer money spent on travel costs for the president and his staff.
"To fly out here on the taxpayers' dime and not be willing to face the voters of California, I think, is outrageous," she said.
This is the second trip to California in which Obama has taken Air Force One to attend a fundraiser with no official business on his schedule. The other was a trip last fall to San Francisco. A Democratic Party official said "the DNC and the Boxer campaign will pay travel costs as legally required."
Obama's fundraising pace has already exceeded that of George W. Bush, who was criticized by Democrats for the amount of time he spent raising money for campaigns.
Air Force One landed at Los Angeles International Airport in the late afternoon, and the president was flown by helicopter to Exposition Park, where he and Boxer spoke at two receptions at the science center. Donors paid between $100 and $2,500 to attend the events, which featured entertainment by soul singer India Arie. The least-expensive tickets were earmarked for young party activists.
Boxer called on Democrats to be as energetic and enthusiastic as "tea party" supporters.
"We've got three opponents in this race and they've been beating up on me every single day," she said, never criticizing her GOP rivals by name. "You know it."
"Speaking of the ‘tea party' people, I think it's great that they are active and excited and ready to go," she said. "My question to you is are you ready to go toe-to-toe with them, cup by cup by cup? I am."
Then she and Obama headed to a dinner at the Museum of Natural History, where tickets cost $35,200 per couple.
The events at both locales had sold out, with ticket sales moving at a fast clip after the passage of healthcare legislation, said dinner co-chairman John Emerson, a former staffer in the Clinton White House who is now a Los Angeles business executive.
"The success of this event is in large part due to the success the president has been having in recent weeks —healthcare, the nuclear summit, revamping student loans. He is on a roll, and people are excited," Emerson said.
Not counting Monday's fundraisers, Boxer already had $8.7 million in the bank for a reelection battle that is expected to be bruising. Three Republicans are vying to take her on — Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett-Packard, former Rep. Tom Campbell and Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore. When campaign reports were filed recently, Boxer had stockpiled more money than all of her potential opponents combined.
The trip marks the president's third visit to Southern California since he took office, and it was not without some drama.. The initial minutes of his speech were interrupted by hecklers screaming that the president had not moved quickly enough to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," the Clinton-era rule governing gays in the military.
"It's time for equality for all Americans," one woman said.
Obama repeatedly told the protester that he and Boxer agreed.
"But let me say this, when you've got an ally like Barbara Boxer and you've got an ally like me who are standing for same thing, then you don't know exactly why you've got to holler because we already hear you," he responded. "It would have made more sense to holler that at the people who oppose it."
Obama is scheduled to leave Los Angeles early Tuesday, White House officials said.