Looking to galvanize Democrats, President Obama cast himself Thursday as a truth-teller in the Harry S. Truman mold, mocking Republicans who opposed his $787-billion economic stimulus package while claiming credit for delivering projects back home.
Speaking to about 2,400 people at a fundraising reception in Denver, Obama invoked a famous phrase from President Truman’s come-from-behind bid to stay in the White House in 1948.
“A lot of these guys when it comes to the ribbon-cuttings for the projects, they show up,” Obama told a packed concert hall. “They’re holding up those big checks: ‘Look what I did for you!’
“I’m not going to give ‘em hell,” the president continued. “I’m going to tell the truth and they’ll think it’s hell. That’s what Harry Truman said.”
Obama opened a two-day Western swing to raise money for a pair of embattled Democratic senators: Michael Bennet of Colorado and Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Bennet faces a Democratic primary challenge, and if he survives that, experts rate his general election chances as a tossup.
In their speeches, both the president and Bennet seemed mindful of the anti-incumbent mood that is expected to cost the Democrats congressional seats in November.
Bennet has been in the job only a year, a biographical fact that his campaign believes will reassure voters disillusioned with Washington insiders. He was appointed to replace Ken Salazar, who became Obama’s Interior secretary.
Introducing the president, Bennet voiced impatience with Washington’s practices and vocabulary.
“When you really think about it, who in the real world uses the word ‘cloture’ or ‘filibuster,’ ” Bennet said. “I used to tell my little girls that ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was just a fairy tale, but now I’m not so sure.”
Speaking afterward, Obama sought to help Bennet make the case. He took pains to portray him as a fresh-faced newcomer.
Obama mentioned his visit to a Senate Democratic caucus meeting earlier in the month. A flurry of senators facing reelection, including Bennet, posed tough questions to Obama that were likely to play well back home.
Obama recounted the moment for the crowd.
“Michael stood up, and he’s new,” Obama said. “So he’s still kind of puzzled as to why is nothing getting done. Michael challenged everybody in the room, including me. He said, ‘This place looks broken to the American people. What can we do differently?’ . . . The first thing I’ll say is, you’ve got to have more leaders like Michael Bennet. Because he’s determined to break through partisan gridlock to get the tough stuff done.”
After leaving the concert hall, Obama went to a more exclusive fundraiser for Bennet at a local hotel, where people who had raised or paid $15,000 got a picture with the president.
“This is a tough political environment,” Obama said at that event. Citing the high unemployment rate, he added, “Sometimes when people are scared, politics can get rough. . . . And it doesn’t help when you’ve got an opposition that is more interested in tearing the other party down than in building America up.”
But the president made a small gaffe, describing Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. as the governor of California.
Realizing his error, Obama said: “East Coast time -- it’s past my dinner.”
Obama’s mission out west isn’t easy: Reid trails in polls, and Bennet isn’t well known outside Denver, where he was superintendent of schools.
“Building his name I.D. is critical right now,” said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. “It’s one reason an Obama visit helps do more than just raise money. . . . One thing that Bennet can’t do much about is the political environment. It’s one reason he works at being -- or trying to be -- independent.”