President Barack Obama took a break from the debate over his health care proposal and deliberations on troop levels in Afghanistan to attend two fundraisers in New York City and hit the campaign trail in New Jersey.
Obama’s appearance in New Jersey to stump for embattled incumbent Governor Jon Corzine produced a full-throated endorsement, but two New York Democrats — New York City mayoral candidate Bill Thompson and 23rd congressional district candidate William Owens — received barely a mention from the president.
In New York on Tuesday, the president attended a fundraiser for Owens, who is locked in a tight race in the special election to fill the upstate seat formerly held by Republican John McHugh. Obama did not speak at the event, denying Owens the endorsement his campaign coveted and dashing hopes that the president would help rally the base to turnout for Owens on November 3.
Owens leads Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman and Republican Dede Scozzafava. But the momentum belongs to Hoffman as conservative activists from around the country have rallied around his campaign. To win, Owens needs a high Democratic turnout in a district that McHugh won with 65 percent of the vote last November. Over the last ten years, the best showing by a Democrat in the district was 37 percent of the vote in 2006.
After the cameo for Owens, Obama spoke to a Democratic National Committee fundraiser heavily attended by Wall Street executives, calling on them not to resist the administration’s proposal to create a federal consumer protection agency to oversee commercial lending and other financial institutions. “Don’t fight [the proposal],” Obama said. “Join us.”
The president reminded his audience that the federal government bailed out financial houses with widely unpopular legislation earlier this year and seemed to suggest that it was time for Wall Street to pay up.
“The financial industry is essential to a healthy economy and to the well-being of our economy. That’s why we stepped in to prevent a collapse,” he said. Having reminded his audience of the quid, Obama then provided them with the quo. “When I hear stories about small businesses and medium-sized businesses not being able to get loans despite Wall Street being back very profitably that tells me that people aren’t thinking about their obligations, our mutual obligations to assist each other, the fact that we’re in this together.”
Obama did not elaborate further on the “obligations” he expected financial organizations to live up to as a price of federal assistance.
At the DNC event, Obama mentioned Democrat mayoral candidate Thompson, calling him, “my friend.” But like Owens, Obama stopped short of speaking an endorsement of Thompson in his race against Independent Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is seeking a third term.
Earlier in the day, Thompson said that he hoped Obama would “put more substance,” behind White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ statement of last week that Obama, “would support the Democratic nominee,” failing to mention Thompson by name. Asked by a pool reporter afterward if he considered the president’s remark an endorsement, a disappointed Thompson asked rhetorically, “No, do you consider that an endorsement?”
The president returned to the metropolitan area on Wednesday to campaign in New Jersey for Corzine. Corzine’s position in the governor’s race has improved in recent weeks, as independent candidate Christopher Daggett has sapped some of the anti-Corzine vote from Republican Christopher Christie. But Corzine has been stuck on 40 percent in the polls, drawing more than that level in only three of the last ten surveys of the race.
More troubling for Corzine, however, are the 25 percent of Democrats in New Jersey who say they will not vote for him. Obama’s visit was calculated to bring those disaffected Democrats back into the fold.
In his remarks on the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Hackensack, Obama called Corzine “a serious man” who has earned a second term.
“I know these are challenging times and Jon knows these are challenging times,” Obama said. “I also know this: For the past four years, you’ve had…a leader who’s fought for what matters most to the people of New Jersey. That’s why New Jersey needs to give Jon Corzine another four years.”
Christie was not cowed by Obama’s appearance, though. He held his own event in Hackensack, at the popular Arena Diner, telling his supporters, “It’s time. It’s time for us to finish the job … I feel better now than I’ve felt the whole campaign.”
Later, in a rare television appearance, Christie told CNN during the Obama/Corzine rally that Obama’s support for Corzine would not mean much on Election Day. “Air Force One is leaving tonight,” he said. “If [voters] vote for Jon Corzine, President Obama is not moving in to run the state.
Along with the Virginia governor’s race, the contest in New Jersey, and to a lesser extent the special election in New York’s 23rd district, are seen as an early test of Obama’s political strength. With Obama’s personal poll numbers coming back down to earth, national Republicans hope that victories in the races will help them gain significantly in next year’s congressional elections, just as wins in New Jersey and Virginia in 1993 helped set the stage for the Republican takeover of the House in 1994.
Obama’s late involvement in both governors’ races — he will campaign for Democrat Creigh Deeds in Virginia next week — ensure that whatever the result of the elections, they will indeed be viewed as a referendum on his first year in the White House.