LAS VEGAS – Hours after exercising a cherished presidential right Tuesday — naming a Supreme Court nominee — Barack Obama engaged in one of the office's grubbier traditions: raising money for an embattled lawmaker.
The president launched a two-day, three-stop Western trip that will devote more time to fundraising than to public policy.
At Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Obama headlined an evening fundraiser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat whose home-state popularity has sagged in recent polls. Tickets started at $50, but donors giving the $29,600 maximum got to shake the president's hand at a more exclusive reception.
On Wednesday, after an 80-minute visit to a photovoltaic facility at Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base, Obama plans to host a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. He flies back to Washington early Thursday.
The heavy focus on partisan politics is a departure from Obama's recent emphasis on the economy and the handling of terrorism suspects.
But he used the opportunity to praise his Supreme Court choice, Sonia Sotomayor, and to trumpet his administration's early achievements.
His November victory gave him the chance to change the nation's politics, Obama told about 4,000 people at the Reid fundraiser. "I think it's fair to say that over these past four months, we've done a pretty good job of seizing that opportunity," he said to loud applause.
Obama cited the stimulus spending bill, efforts to stabilize the housing, banking and automobile industries, and other initiatives.
Unarguably a good campaigner, he sometimes shows ambivalence about the more rawboned aspects of politics. For instance, he did not go to Georgia to stump for the Democrat in a December runoff for a Senate seat, eventually won by the GOP incumbent, Saxby Chambliss. The Democrat, Jim Martin, had invited him, but some party activists questioned whether a visit by Obama would help in a state that he lost to Sen. John McCain in November.
Obama carried Nevada, however, and Reid was eager to have him help draw the kind of crowd that only a president can assemble.
Reid has said he wants to raise $25 million for his re-election contest, which is 17 months away. Polls suggest he is vulnerable, but Republicans have yet to recruit a strong challenger.
Obama's clout as a campaigner and fundraiser for Democrats in the 2010 elections will depend largely on whether his popularity remains high and his economic programs succeed. Even if they falter somewhat, Democratic candidates in liberal states are almost certain to welcome his help, at least at fundraisers.
But those in toss-up states might be reluctant to stir up conservative voters with a visit by a president who is dramatically increasing government spending and borrowing.
"In some places he can be polarizing," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist in Washington.
But David DiMartino, a former Democratic Senate aide, said the Las Vegas event makes sense for both Obama and Reid. Obama, he said, wins points with a Senate leader "critical to the success of the president's agenda. And Sen. Reid gets to appear to his constituents as close to the flame, within the glow of President Obama's high approval ratings."
Obama, of course, has plenty of incentives for helping Democratic candidates win elections next year. A 60-person majority in the 100-member Senate would block Republican filibusters of his initiatives if all Democrats toe the party line. Obama also wants to maintain his party's solid majority in the House, where all 435 seats will be up for grabs next year.
Obama's Las Vegas visit might enable him to soothe some feelings that he hurt in February. "You can't get corporate jets," Obama said then in Indiana, when resentment of corporate executives pay packages was running high. "You can't go take a trip to Las Vegas, or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers' dime. There has got to be some accountability and some responsibility."
Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman was among the officials who complained that the president was hurting the city's crucial tourism business. Goodman, however, joined Reid in greeting Obama on Tuesday when he descended from Air Force One.