Obama in S.F. for Boxer faces critics on spill
President Obama, facing criticism that his administration has failed to respond aggressively to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, assured supporters in San Francisco on Tuesday that "the situation in the gulf is heartbreaking, and we're doing everything we can."
"Nobody is more upset than me, because ultimately," he said, "when this happens on your watch, you are thinking, how does this get solved?" Obama said his administration has marshaled more than 1,000 people to help deal with the spill and "we are now having to do a thorough review" to see how oil companies "can say they know how to handle these problems when actually they don't."
Obama spoke to a VIP reception of about 200 people and later to a sold-out crowd of about 800 at a reception at the Fairmont Hotel, two of his three appearances Tuesday to bulk up the campaign coffers of Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who will face strong Republican competition this fall in her bid for a fourth term.
After being criticized earlier in the day for making the San Francisco fundraising trip as oil continues to gush from the seafloor, Obama stressed repeatedly that his administration is dealing aggressively with the disaster.
Boxer also defended the president, saying the Justice Department is "investigating this thing ... that you don't make a false claim that you can take care of this. No they didn't ... and they need to be held accountable."
Outside the hotel, an eclectic crowd gathered to shout out support or opposition to immigration and health care reforms, and one protester opposed to oil drilling in the Arctic dressed as a polar bear.
Inside during the reception, a heckler who shouted, "Move faster on don't ask, don't tell," briefly interrupted Obama's address. However, the president appeared unflustered, joking that the protester should "read the newspapers" and spend his money on going to events with "a guy who doesn't support your point of view." He finished the exchange with, "Come on man, I'm dealing with Congress, it takes time."
Off to the Gettys'
After the Fairmont event, which was expected to raise at least $1.7 million from supporters who paid $250 to $2,000 for tickets, Obama was whisked to an exclusive VIP dinner at the Broadway mansion of wealthy oil heir Gordon Getty and his wife, Ann.
Inside the lavish home of the philanthropist son of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, some 80 donors wrote checks for $35,200 per couple to meet the president and have their photo taken with him. Boxer's campaign raised $600,000 from the two events, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee took in $1.1 million, organizers said.
With less than two weeks until the June 8 primary election, the president's fundraising trip to California for the upscale events on Boxer's behalf created some uncomfortable timing for the White House.
As the BP oil spill blights miles of delicate marshland, well-known Democrats including analyst Donna Brazile and strategist James Carville have publicly criticized the federal government's failure to take a stronger role in stemming the disaster.
Obama said Tuesday he will make his second visit to the gulf region Friday, but his decision to make the cross-country trip to raise money for Democrats in San Francisco as the disaster raged handed partisan critics some potent ammunition.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina accused Obama of "misplaced priorities," saying, "Our nation faces a terrible economic, environmental and human tragedy in the gulf. ... Meanwhile, President Obama is on a rescue mission not in the gulf but instead in California, to save Barbara Boxer's 18-year political career."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee noted that "with millions of gallons of crude oil wreaking havoc on the Gulf of Mexico," Obama didn't plan to go there until "after he hosts a fancy fundraiser" with Getty.
But Democrats at the San Francisco events defended the president.
"If our biggest problem is Republicans criticizing us for being behind Big Oil, we'll do well in the midterm elections," said Wade Randlett, one of the hosts of Tuesday's VIP reception. He said Obama's visit to the Bay Area provided a dramatic contrast between the Democratic agenda and the Republican agenda.
"He's highlighting alternative, clean-energy jobs at places like (electric car manufacturer) Tesla and (solar energy manufacturing firm) Solyndra ... and that you have a Senate candidate in Barbara Boxer who is the only one to support AB32," the landmark greenhouse gas reduction bill.
The White House emphasized that Obama's trip was also intended to push economic and jobs issues, with a scheduled trip today to Solyndra in Fremont.
Still, insiders said Obama's trip - his second fundraising trip in 40 days to the West Coast on Boxer's behalf - underscored the high stakes for the party in securing another term for Boxer.
Boxer seen as vulnerable
Even in solidly blue California, where Democrats hold a 14-point registration advantage, polls have shown Boxer to be vulnerable in her re-election bid.
Three Republicans are engaged in a lively primary battle to take her on in November. Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, has contributed $3.6 million of her own money to the race and is facing off with former South Bay Rep. Tom Campbell, a moderate pro-choice Republican, and Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Irvine.
Republicans gleefully noted that Obama's second trip to California was an ominous sign of Boxer's weakness.
"What stronger indicator could there be that Sen. Boxer's re-election campaign is in serious jeopardy when the president of the United States has to come in twice in as many months to raise money for you?" asked California Republican Party Chair Ron Nehring.
"We noticed that as of today they have even more to talk about while they're spending all this time together: according to the latest polling, public support for each of them is in the low 40s," Nehring said.
White House economic adviser Jared Bernstein told reporters in a conference call Tuesday that Obama's trip to Fremont today would be an important chance for him to "get out of the Beltway bubble to see and hear and feel what's really going on, good and bad," on the economic front.
Solyndra, which received a $535 million loan under the federal Recovery Act, has created 3,000 construction jobs and is expected to add 1,000 more permanent jobs, Bernstein said, just part of the 56,000 new jobs California has added in the last four months.
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