Fans resent lack of public Obama events

By Carla Marinucci

June 3, 2013

San Francisco Chronicle

It’s a scenario that’s all too familiar: President Obama will visit Silicon Valley this week – but the only Californians who will see or hear from him will pay at least $2,500 for the privilege.

As the president begins his 20th trip to California since entering office, the seemingly endless capacity of the White House to vacuum up California campaign checks – without scheduling any public events – is becoming a cause for concern, even among loyal Democrats.

“It’s a missed opportunity,” said Democratic strategist Garry South, who gave the maximum donations allowed to Obama’s two presidential campaigns.

“It’s usually a mistake to just be making fundraising forays into a state like California without combining those political events with some sort of public activity,” he said, noting public events offer alternatives to photos of Obama “hustled into the back of a ballroom.”

Obama’s latest Silicon Valley fundraising swing, to benefit the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, begins on June 6 and includes an evening reception at the Palo Alto home of Flipboard CEO Michael McCue and his wife Marci, where tickets start at $2,500 per person.

That’s followed by an “intimate” $32,400 per person dinner at the Portola Valley residence of star venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems, and his wife Neeru.

No free events since ’08

The California trip will include one official event: a meeting Friday and Saturday with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands Estate in Rancho Mirage (Riverside County).

Records show that in every one of his 13 trips to Northern California since taking office, Obama has never missed an opportunity for fundraising in the reliable Mother Lode for Democratic causes.

His rare non-fundraising forays here have all been invitation-only – a May 2010 visit to the now-defunct Solyndra plant, and two 2011 private town halls at the Palo Alto headquarters of Facebook and Mountain View-based LinkedIn.

Obama hasn’t starred at a free event open to the public in the Bay Area since before the 2008 election, when – as a candidate – he held rallies and addressed thousands of voters in Oakland and Marin County.

Even first lady Michelle Obama’s last public events in the region were in 2009, when she made a visit to Bret Harte Elementary School in San Francisco and spoke to graduates at UC Merced.

Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin said Obama’s current troubles in Washington – the Benghazi attack, the IRS scandal and the outcry over secret gathering of Associated Press reporters’ phone records – suggest the White House needs to adopt a war room strategy that takes advantage of every opportunity to tell his story to voters instead of “just chugging along.”

“I’m really worried about 2014,” Tulchin said. “The GOP is fired up … and there isn’t a compelling narrative for the Democrats.”

Republican strategist Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow, said the problem isn’t helped by Obama’s frequent visits to California to focus on fundraising – not issues.

“On trips like this, he raises a lot of money in Palo Alto,” said Whalen, while just miles away, “in East Palo Alto, they have a state of emergency.”

Contrasted with Clinton

Law officers enforced a curfew in East Palo Alto last week and put more officers on the streets to deal with a spike in gun-related violence since January – an issue Whalen said Obama could address.

The president’s failure to schedule public events contrasts sharply with that of Democratic President Bill Clinton, who mixed fundraising and public advocacy events in dozens of trips to the Bay Area during his two terms.

In 1996, for example, Clinton dramatized his “Bridge to the 21st Century” agenda by marking NetDay at Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord – where he personally laid wiring and installed computers with then-Vice President Al Gore.

In San Francisco, Clinton also invited reporters along when he made stops in neighborhoods like Chinatown – on one occasion, he shopped for gifts on Grant Avenue, to the delight of the residents and business owners.

“Bill Clinton treated California like he was a county supervisor,” said South, who served as senior strategist to then-California Gov. Gray Davis. “He knew everything going on here. He knew every bridge project … and he just treated it like a personal domain. He was a kibitzer.

“Obama has never had that relationship with California, and I’m not sure he has that relationship with his home state,” said South. “He’s more of a (view from) 39,000-feet guy.”

South insists that Obama – who won California twice by double digits – still can seize the opportunity to use his visits as a stage to dramatize the importance of key items on his policy agenda.

Those include immigration reform, high-speed rail and the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which he called “a slam dunk” for the president to address while he is in California.

The nation’s most populous state has become “a model and a showcase” for implementing the president’s signature legislation, South said.

State a model for health care

“We probably are further ahead in implementing Obamacare than any other state. … We’re setting up the exchanges that many other states have resisted,” he said. “And we have a Democratic governor and Democratic majorities in both legislative houses fully on board.”

South noted that even as Obama arrives this week to pick up checks from donors, Covered California, the new marketplace and state exchange for health care services, is working to educate the public on the legislation’s impact.

“A president of the United States, in a public forum, can say a few words – and that’s worth a lot more a than a few public service ads that no one will see,” South said. “He could play a very useful role here in helping the state with more registered voters than there are people living in 46 of the other 49 states.”

Carla Marinucci is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer.


Twitter: @cmarinucci