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Obama budget: a boon midterm narrative for Democrats?

Copies of U.S. President Barack Obama's Fiscal Year 2015 Budget are delivered to The House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, M
Copies of U.S. President Barack Obama's Fiscal Year 2015 Budget are delivered to The House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, M

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's populist budget proposal, announced on Tuesday, is a pointed attempt to bolster ties with congressional Democrats ahead of high-stakes elections in November.

The budget for fiscal year 2015 focuses on America's stubbornly high jobless rate and fortifying a middle class that has had more and more trouble getting by.

It reflects a marked difference in tone and substance from last year when the president sought to draw Republicans into deficit-reduction talks by proposing to trim the growth of the Social Security retirement program.

After those negotiations went nowhere, Obama has returned to a more traditionally Democratic stance and dropped the idea of revamping entitlement spending that upset some of his Democratic allies in Congress.

"What Obama learned is that it's good to have these relationships and good to build them, but it's not going to get you anywhere," said Norm Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

The budget has little chance of passing in the divided U.S. Congress, certainly not in its whole form, but it does set out some Democratic principles for the middle class that candidates can use as a narrative for their own campaigns.

"It's a roadmap for creating jobs with good wages and expanding opportunity for all Americans," Obama said Tuesday at an elementary school in Washington.

Democrats will need all the help they can get in November. The party in power that holds the White House in these midterm elections usually loses seats in Congress. And the landscape looks particularly troubling after the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

Last spring, after the release of his fiscal 2014 budget, Obama began a charm offensive with Republicans, holding a series of meetings, sometimes over dinner, with moderates. He was seeking to get them to agree to raise tax revenues as part of a deficit-reduction deal that would also set aside some money for spending on job-creating programs.

That effort fizzled, leading ultimately to a 16-day government shutdown in October. White House officials concluded that Obama had spent too much time wooing Republicans and too little managing relationships with Democrats.

Now, there is less talk about cutting deficits and more about raising money for education, job training and funding infrastructure projects.

Obama is portraying Republicans as out of touch with the concerns of working Americans and more eager to protect corporations and the wealthy leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

The budget is only a part of a White House strategy for Obama's final two years in office.

A fiery speech he gave at the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee last Friday night was a sign he recognizes the importance of the coming elections.

On November 4, all 435 seats in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a third of the 100-member Senate, controlled by Democrats, are up for grabs.

Republicans believe they have a good chance to pick up the six seats they need to take control of the Senate based on public dissatisfaction with Obama, whose approval rating is in the 40s, and concerns about Obamacare. Democrats are in a tight spot, forced to defend 21 seats to only 14 for Republicans.

If Republicans were to grab control of the Senate, it would accelerate Obama's status as a lame-duck president.

The urgency of that prospect could be discerned on Tuesday night as Vice President Joe Biden raised money in Atlanta for Michelle Nunn, a Democrat whom party leaders see as having one of the best chances of picking up a Senate seat that has been held by a Republican.

"We understand what's at stake," said Earl Fowlkes, a Democratic National Committee member. "We have to keep the Senate. That's our No. 1 priority."

Democrats believe party activists are as united as ever and are happy that Obama is fighting for his healthcare law, feeling some in the party should have done more in 2010 congressional elections when Republicans who ran on opposing it won the House.

"We're going to keep working to make this law work even better," Obama told Democrats at their meeting. "We will not apologize for it. It's the right thing to do."

But in a tipoff that the law's rollout persists as a political problem for Democrats, Biden stopped at an Atlanta restaurant to talk up Obamacare and urge more young people to sign up for health insurance.

"I just want to hear from you all, tell me what's working and what isn't working and what we can do to be helpful, and how you see it going," said Biden. "That's the bottom line."

(Additional reporting by Karen Jacobs in Atlanta; Editing by Caren Bohan and Prudence Crowther)

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