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Obama fundraises for Dems, talks to Congress

Barack Obama, Debby Klobuchar
President Barack Obama, followed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., waves as he arrives for the weekly Senate Democrat caucus luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday. Gerald Herbert / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In a pair of political firsts as president, Barack Obama endorsed a fellow Democrat in a competitive special congressional election and was the main draw at two Democratic National Committee fundraisers on Wednesday.

"Sign up and pitch in to elect Scott Murphy to Congress," the president implored in an early morning e-mail to at least 50,000 people in New York's 20th Congressional District. Tying his agenda to the election's outcome, he added that electing Murphy would "make a big impact on my efforts to bring about a lasting economic recovery."

By evening, Obama headlined two fundraisers in Washington expected to bring in an estimated $3 million for the Democratic National Committee. The party is struggling to keep financial pace with its Republican counterpart despite coming off a successful election in which Democrats won the White House and expanded power in Congress.

Ramping up his dual role
The country's new chief executive has been ramping up his dual role as the Democratic Party's leader in recent days after largely shunning campaigning and fundraising over the past two months as he focused on a country struggling through economic recession and two wars.

During remarks at a high-dollar fundraiser, Obama tied his record to Democrats' hard work on an economic stimulus package. He specifically noted his pending budget proposal, which faces skepticism from some inside his party and hostility from Republicans. Obama made clear that his fellow Democrats should fall in line.

"It's a vision of what the Democratic Party stands for," the president said, citing his budget's plans for health care and education.

Obama has shied from overtly partisan activities since taking office, mindful that engaging in Democratic politics while the country was ailing would leave him vulnerable to criticism and, perhaps, run counter to his call for bipartisanship in Washington.

But over the past week, Obama activated his grass-roots campaign apparatus, Organizing for America, and its almost 14 million e-mail address list to put pressure on Congress to back his budget proposal. And, now, the party's standard-bearer is jumping with both feet into the game, largely out of necessity.

With the election Tuesday, polls show a tight race between Murphy, a political newcomer and a venture capitalist running in a heavily Republican district against the well-known Jim Tedisco, the GOP leader of the state Assembly. At the same time, the DNC significantly trails the Republican National Committee in fundraising as both parties start raising money for upcoming elections.

Trying to keep upstate New York
Democrats hope to avoid losing the upstate New York seat where Republicans outnumber Democrats by 70,000. It became vacant when New York Gov. David Paterson appointed moderate Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand to serve the remainder of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's U.S. Senate term.

Obama said in the e-mail that Murphy "has the kind of experience and background we desperately need right now in Washington" and asked voters to send him to Congress, "where we'll work together to get our economy moving in the right direction."

"He's created jobs by building and growing small businesses while bringing people together to address difficult challenges," Obama added. "He supports the economic recovery plan we've put in place, and I know we can count on him as an ally for change."

Democrats aren't ruling out top administration officials, perhaps Obama himself, participating in some form of advertisements or phone calls in the coming days. The DNC also sent $10,000 to New York for the homestretch; the RNC has poured $200,000 into the race.

Later Wednesday, Obama headlined his first pair of DNC fundraisers. He's a guaranteed draw, having raised nearly $750 million during his presidential campaign and shattering fundraising records.

He addressed a big-donor audience — with tickets costing $30,400 per couple — at the National Women in the Arts Museum before appearing at the Warner Theater, where singer Tony Bennett was to perform. Tickets for that event range from $100 to $250 to $1,000.

Both events sold out
Democrats said both events were sold out.

"You are here to support the Democratic National Committee, the political arm of the White House," DNC chairman Tim Kaine told high-dollar guests, who ate dinner and listened to jazz before Obama spoke.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs defended Obama's political fundraising in tough economic times, saying: "We haven't seen politics by either party stop in this period, though I think the president fully understands the situation the American people face."

"It's also safe to assume that the president wants to see a strong party system in this country," Gibbs added.

The party is seeking to fill depleted campaign coffers for special congressional elections and governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey this year, as well as congressional elections in 2010.

Republicans are in healthier financial shape than Democrats.

The DNC raised a relatively paltry $3.2 million in February despite Obama's proven powerhouse fundraising, while the out-of-power RNC brought in $5.1 million. Overall, the DNC reported $8.6 million on hand and $7 million in debt, while the RNC reported $24 million in the bank and no debt.

Greek Independence Day
Earlier Wednesday, the White House held a reception honoring Greek Independence Day, with the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in America saying the president should follow the example of the ancient military conqueror to help solve some of Greece's problems.

"I will tell Michelle that I've been compared to Alexander the Great," the president told 200 guests, many of them Greek-Americans from Obama's hometown of Chicago. "I will see whether that gets me a little more respect at home. At home she knows she's still the boss."

Obama said many of the Founding Fathers were students of Greek history and turned to ancient texts for guidance. He said it was a cruel irony that the Greeks tested democracy but then faced a struggle to achieve their own independence 188 years ago.

Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, dressed in his black traditional headdress and robe, also noted the strong ties of freedom and democracy the two countries share. He said he prays every day for the president, and hopes that Obama will follow the "brilliant example of Alexander the Great" in helping Greece "cut the Gordian knot" of unresolved issues — a reference to a legend involving Alexander and a difficult problem solved by bold action.

Those issues include Greece's dispute with Macedonia over that country's use of the name. Greece says the name "Macedonia" implies territorial claims on its own province of the same name and has vetoed Macedonia's bid for NATO membership until the dispute is resolved.

'Moving in the right direction'
The day after answering tough questions at a prime-time news conference in Washington, Obama not only met with Demetrios, but lobbied Congress for his budget, honored Medal of Honor recipients at Arlington National Cemetery, and met with NATO's secretary general.

After telling Americans his battle with the profound economic crisis has the country "moving in the right direction," Obama sat down with Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill Wednesday, attempting to sell his $3.6 trillion proposal.

Since taking office seven weeks ago, Obama and his economic team have been in seemingly perpetual motion, trying to put out recessionary fires while also pitching massive spending that would revamp the country's crippling spending on health care and put the nation on a path toward energy independence.