By JULIE PACE
WASHINGTON — Looking for a big-name speaker?
Now may be the time to send President Barack Obama an invitation, especially if your group represents a key political constituency.
Obama has been making the rounds of Washington’s awards dinners and black-tie galas this fall, donning a tuxedo or dark suit and heading to ballrooms across the nation’s capital to speak to organizations representing blacks, Hispanics, Jews, women and gays. This weekend, he adds Italian- Americans to that list.
With the 2012 campaign picking up steam and Obama struggling to recapture the enthusiasm of 2008, the president’s role as headline speaker has plenty of political undertones. He needs the well-connected, politically active leaders of these groups to help him motivate their members, raise money for his re-election and get people to show up to vote in next year’s election.
And the president’s remarks give him a chance to address specific criticism from some supporters, and tout lesser-known administration actions that target their needs.
Since September, Obama has been the featured speaker at dinners for the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a forum on American Latino Heritage, and the annual gala for the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights group. The president will speak Saturday at a black-tie dinner for the National Italian American Foundation, and in early November, at an awards dinner for the National Women’s Law Center. The Union for Reform Judaism also says Obama will speak at its December conference.
Obama is following the path of many of his predecessors, who have also tried to curry favor with influential Washington-based organizations, particularly those with similar political leanings.
The president has also sent out his own invitations, bringing influential constituencies to the White House for Tribal Nations conferences, for Passover Seders, for Iftars.
With a presidential election just about a year away, the outreach to key voting blocs is more critical than ever. The president’s approval ratings have dipped into the mid to low forties amid persistently high unemployment. And with sagging enthusiasm among some core supporters, Obama’s campaign could face challenges in getting the first-time voters who helped him win the White House, particularly blacks, Hispanics and young people, back to the polls next November.
White House officials won’t say exactly how aides decide which events the president attends. But it’s little surprise that Obama rarely finds himself in front of anything less than a supportive audience.
The president often shows up just before he’s scheduled to speak, and rarely stays for dinner. His speeches, sometimes delivered before a crowd of thousands, pull from his day-to-day messages on the economy and jobs, but are typically tailored to his audience.
During a fiery speech earlier this month at the annual gala for the Human Rights Campaign, Obama heralded his role in ending the military’s ban on openly gay service members and his administration’s decision to stop enforcing the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman. He also used the opportunity to jab Republican presidential candidates for failing to stand up for a gay service member who was booed by an audience at a GOP debate.
“You want to be commander in chief? You can start by standing up for the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States, even when it’s not politically convenient,” Obama said.
Rich Galen, a Republican strategist, said Obama would be better served spending more time working with Congress to bring down the nation’s 9.1 percent unemployment rate than in trying to boost his political base.
“Doing all of these things is doing nothing to foster any meaningful legislation,” he said.
White House officials insist the economy, not politics is the president’s primary focus. Trying to show action on the economy in any way possible, they’ve launched a new campaign dubbed “We Can’t Wait” to highlight action the president is taking without waiting for Congress.
The White House announced two minor actions Friday, with Obama directing government agencies to shorten the time it takes for federal research to turn into commercial products in the marketplace, and calling for creation of a centralized online site for companies to easily find information on federal services
At a Congressional Hispanic Caucus dinner in September, the president touted the impact the jobs bill he had recently proposed would have for Hispanic workers. But he also took on criticism of his administration’s lack of progress on immigration, saying it couldn’t all fall on his shoulders.
“We live in a democracy, and at the end of the day, I can’t do this all by myself under our democratic system,” he said.
The president took a similar approach later that month at the Congressional Black Caucus. Aware of rumblings from some members of the group that he hadn’t done enough to address unemployment among African-Americans, Obama told blacks to quit crying and complaining and “put on your marching shoes” to follow him into battle for jobs and opportunity.
The president’s comments left some at the event a bit unsettled, including Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who said she found the president’s language “a bit curious.”
Democratic strategist Karen Finney said it’s just as important for Obama to trumpet his accomplishments when he meets with supporters as it is to acknowledge the areas where there is frustration.
“I think it takes a certain amount of courage to do that,” she said. “He gets a lot of respect for showing up.”