The past week has seen President Obama attempt to pull off a tough balancing act — being the nation’s comforter in chief and also his party’s most productive cash cow.
On Wednesday, the president and first lady Michelle Obama will attend a memorial service for the victims of last week’s deadly shooting at Fort Hood. While in Texas, Mr. Obama also will headline a Democratic fundraiser in Houston, with ticket prices starting at $16,200 per person.
The president also juggled tragedy and politics last week in Chicago. On April 2, the day Spc. Ivan Lopez killed three and wounded 16 others at Fort Hood, Mr. Obama delivered a brief statement just after the rampage ended — from the site of a Democratic fundraiser at a pricey Chicago steakhouse. Immediately after his remarks, the president headed to another event a few miles away at the home of two wealthy Democratic donors. About 60 people attended, giving up to $10,000 each to the party.
Analysts say the president’s dual roles can’t always be separated, especially during a midterm election year. The Democratic National Committee and other party arms count on Mr. Obama to raise millions of dollars in the effort to retain control of the Senate and gain seats in the House.
“I think it’s a reality that you can’t avoid. I think it’s not problematic except when the jarring disconnect [of paying tribute to victims then raising money hours later] is somehow called to public attention,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in the American presidency.
“It’s hard to escape. People know that. President Obama has been pretty effective at condolences. It makes the disconnect less likely Everybody understands the situation he’s in,” he said.
Wednesday’s Democratic event in Houston is one of at least 18 fundraisers the president has attended or has committed to attend this year, according to The Associated Press. Mr. Obama has raised money for the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Governors Association and other groups.
He is hardly the first president to juggle the duties of his office and political functions, but some analysts say he could run into trouble if he gives the impression that party fundraising is at the top of his agenda.
“The comforter-in-chief role of the president takes precedence during these heightened moments. Because of the gravity of the situation at Fort Hood, all eyes are on that [memorial] event,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who specializes in presidential leadership. “The problem for the president is if there’s an empathy gap. If it begins to appear he doesn’t care about national security, doesn’t care about the nation’s veterans, it starts to hurt his credibility.”
Trying to avoid such a scenario, Mr. Obama spoke about the Fort Hood massacre during last week’s fundraiser in Chicago. He may mention it again during Wednesday’s event in Houston, which House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also reportedly will attend.
Mr. Rottinghaus and other analysts said average American voters understand the president, owing a debt to the party leaders who helped propel him into the Oval Office, must split his time between Democratic functions and the responsibilities of being commander in chief.
But the White House, Mr. Rottinghaus said, goes to great lengths to shield fundraisers from the public eye. On a day like Wednesday, he said that effort is even more important as the administration tries to avoid the perception the president is insensitive.
“They keep the media away. There are no cameras,” Mr. Rottinghaus said. “The White House has effectively shielded the fundraising process from the president’s specific governmental role. The White House thinks the public couldn’t separate these things. If they saw two events on Houston TV, at the memorial service and then the next shot is him going into a high-priced mansion with people giving tens of thousands of dollars, it’s something they think is a bad interplay.”
Indeed, the president’s appearances at party fundraisers largely are kept hidden from public view. The event at the Chicago steakhouse last week was closed to the press until necessity required that cameras be let into the separate room for Mr. Obama’s statement only. The second fundraiser was open to a handful of reporters only for a few minutes as the president delivered his remarks.