M. Spencer Green, File, Associated Press
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 liberal Union for Reform Judaism says Obama will speak at its four-day conference in December.
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 last 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.
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