For Obama, mayor and governor: a win-win-win situation

President Obama’s visit to California last week demonstrated anew that politics is just like junior high: Everyone wants to hang out with the popular guy.

Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed John McCain over Obama in the presidential campaign. But as he introduced Obama in Los Angeles on Thursday, he was effusive:

“I want to thank him publicly for the courageous leadership and the great commitment that he has displayed over these last few months,” the governor said.

Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, campaigned for Hillary Clinton in the primaries, and joined Schwarzenegger in embracing Obama onstage:

“He set out to make the case to the American people that better days are ahead but . . . we can only do that working together,” the mayor said later. “He did a great job of making that case. Frankly, I think, mission accomplished!”

Praise is plentiful currency at political gatherings, even if it is a currency with little purchasing power. In this case it reflected Obama’s striking 24-point victory in California in November and the legions of fans he amassed in the process. Many of them had waited for days for tickets to his Southern California appearances; they clogged roads near Long Beach Airport for a glimpse of Air Force One; they made his “town halls” rumble like overcaffeinated campaign events.

But there was more at work as well. Each of the three men who shared the stage needs something from the others. Obama, not surprisingly, holds the upper hand by virtue not just of his popularity, but also billions in federal money.

Mindful that even resounding political advantage can ebb in tumultuous times like these, Obama has not been shy about advertising his administration’s largesse.

Even before he arrived, he was touting the benefits his economic stimulus program would bring the state: “In Long Beach, California, it will be able to help fund 17,000 hours of overtime for law enforcement officials who are needed in high-crime areas,” he told an Ohio audience.

Once he got here, his two-day stop was replete with offerings. On Wednesday in Costa Mesa, he said his stimulus plan would promote an additional lane on the ever-crawling 91 Freeway. On Thursday in Los Angeles, he announced that the state would receive $145 million in housing grants to help communities threatened by home foreclosures.

The White House released a compendium of “funding for California in the first 30 days” since the stimulus package was signed. Included: $8.6 billion for schools, $2.6 billion for highways, $2 billion for Medi-Cal relief, $1.1 billion for housing, $1 billion for mass transit and billions more in smaller disbursements.

“The economic stimulus package that President Obama has put together, California is benefiting tremendously from that,” Schwarzenegger told the cheering audience in Los Angeles. And, he added, “I tell you, it is the greatest package. I am so happy that we are getting those kinds of benefits from the federal government and from President Obama.”

The benefit to Obama is straightforward. Keeping California happy could ensure his reelection success here and could pay added benefits in nearby Western states, battleground areas where, at least before the housing bubble burst, Californians were reliably moving.

And the visuals -- from his Los Angeles visit in particular -- were politically beneficial. Obama, who in his campaign pledged to work with opponents as much as allies, hugged two men who last year worked for the other side. In Villaraigosa, he got a figurative embrace from Latinos; in Schwarzenegger, one from a particular brand of Republican.

Schwarzenegger and Villaraigosa, meanwhile, also had something to gain: The hope that Obama’s popularity would rub off.

Each is a lame duck in his current job; the governor leaves office after the 2010 elections, and Villaraigosa was just elected to his final term as mayor. Neither is doing particularly well among voters, and certainly not as well as Obama.

In a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, 70% of Californians approved of the way Obama was doing his job, compared with only 33% who felt the same about Schwarzenegger. In a hypothetical matchup for the U.S. Senate seat in 2010, incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer clocked Schwarzenegger by 24 points -- the same margin by which Obama beat McCain in the state.

Villaraigosa is contemplating a race for governor next year, but his somewhat anemic reelection earlier this month did little to boost his chances. A Field Poll showed him with a favorability rating of only 35% among California voters -- with 37% offering no view of him at all.

For both Californians, Obama represents financial salvation, and they made clear this week, in private conversations and publicly, that they see federal money as a way out of state and local budget problems that range from serious to catastrophic. The result, according to Republican media strategist Don Sipple, is a convergence of political ambitions.

“All of them need each other desperately,” Sipple said, “and that’s what was on display.”

Each Sunday, The Week examines one or more of the previous week’s major stories and their implications for our state or our region.