WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Aides to President Barack Obama on Sunday played down prospects for a major shake-up of his agenda, despite a shocking election setback last week for his Democratic party.
But in an indication Obama was absorbing lessons from the upset Republican victory for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, he turned to a trusted outside adviser for help in guiding the party’s strategy in congressional elections in November.
David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, was known for keeping the political operation on an even keel by admonishing aides and supporters against “bed-wetting,” or panicking in times of trouble.
Plouffe will work with both the White House and congressional Democrats, who worry more losses could be in store for them in November.
Obama, who is taking a populist turn that includes a vow to crack down on Wall Street excesses, is to deliver his State of the Union address to Congress on Wednesday. Analysts will be looking closely at that speech for any sign of a reframing of his agenda.
“He is going to fight for what he’s always been fighting for,” White House adviser Valerie Jarrett told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “We’re not hitting a reset button at all.”
While the White House has said Obama won’t gloss over the Massachusetts setback in his speech, Jarrett and other aides said Obama was sticking to priorities such as seeking to overhaul the healthcare system, calling for targeted actions to spur job growth and putting new curbs on Wall Street.
The election of Republican Scott Brown to be a U.S. senator from Massachusetts means Democrats will no longer have a 60-vote supermajority in the chamber. As a result, Democrats will not be able to hold off Republican procedural maneuvers designed to block legislation, such as Obama’s proposed healthcare plan.
Analysts have speculated that Obama and the Democrats will be forced to scale back the healthcare plan and possibly delay other agenda items, such as a proposal for caps on carbon emissions as part of the U.S. fight against global warming.
Obama’s aides said he has no intention of abandoning the effort to pass a healthcare bill.
“What he’s doing and what happened over the course of the weekend, is there’s been a series of phone calls and conversations to try to see ... what the climate is,” Jarrett said. “What is the art of the possible?”
“He is going to fight for trying to get absolutely as much as he can to reduce the cost of healthcare, to provide insurance, provide security and safety for those folks who have insurance now,” she added.
Polls suggest that anxiety over the economy and the unpopularity of the healthcare bill have taken a political toll on Obama, whose approval ratings have slumped to roughly 50 percent compared to 70 percent when he took office a year ago.
The loss in Massachusetts’ special election for the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat followed defeats for Democrats in governors races in Virginia and New Jersey.
But top White House adviser David Axelrod told ABC’s “This Week” program that he thought reaction to the Massachusetts Senate race was “overblown.”
“Washington loves the shake-up story, Washington loves the ‘When are we going to throw a body out?’ story. That’s not how we roll,” Axelrod said.
Within the blogosphere, there has been speculation about whether staff changes might be in store, with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner a focus of comment even though the White House has reiterated its confidence in him and given no indication it wants to make a change.
Obama does not have a history of making big staff changes and did not do so during the 2008 campaign even though his rivals, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain both did.
Axelrod and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said they believed that the public’s concerns about the healthcare bill had to do more with the messy process in Congress of trying to pass the bill than with the substance of the plan.
“I do think that the process has caused things like the health care plan to be caricatured,” Gibbs told “Fox News Sunday.”
But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell disagreed and accused Democrats of refusing to listen to the American public.
“All the surveys, all across the country, and even in the most liberal state in America, arguably, Massachusetts, the people are telling us please don’t pass this bill,” McConnell told NBC.
Editing by Philip Barbara