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July 27, 2014

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Obama and Reid forge bond beyond politics as usual

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Leila Navidi

President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid embrace during a fundraiser at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in May 2009.

Obama and Reid

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, is congratulated by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, center, after signing the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 30, 2009. Launch slideshow »

Obama, Reid at Caesars (5-26-2009)

President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid embrace during a fundraiser at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas Tuesday. Launch slideshow »

Obama speaks at Caesars, part 1

President Barack Obama spoke at a fundraiser for Senate majority leader Harry Reid at Caesars Palace.

Obama speaks at Caesars, part 2

President Barack Obama spoke at a fundraiser for Senate majority leader Harry Reid at Caesars Palace.

Obama speaks at Caesars, part 3

President Barack Obama spoke at a fundraiser for Senate majority leader Harry Reid at Caesars Palace.

Obama speaks at Caesars, part 4

President Barack Obama spoke at a fundraiser for Senate majority leader Harry Reid at Caesars Palace.

WASHINGTON — In the midst of intense discussions in Congress last February over the economic recovery act, the new president turned to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for what would become the heavy lifting.

The House and Senate were battling over the shape and substance of President Barack Obama’s first legislative priority. Senate Democrats, who didn’t have the 60-vote majority needed for passage, faced trouble finding Republican support. Obama found a master negotiator in Reid and placed his trust in him to get it done.

Reid did just that, securing the biggest financial rescue in U.S. history. In doing so, he inextricably tied together the two men’s political fortunes — and perhaps their legacies — in a law that continues to be debated as either having saved the economy from collapse or driven the nation deeper into unnecessary debt.

Reid and Obama, who will appear together tonight and Friday at events in Las Vegas, have forged a deeper relationship than most of Washington could have imagined a year ago.

To be sure, the bond is built on mutual dependence. But there is also a general fondness for the other, a relationship one White House official described as “close and trusting.”

This may come as a surprise to those who know Reid as the one who made the impolitic remarks about Obama’s race, which surfaced last month in a tell-all campaign book. Reid, in saying he believed the country was ready for its first African-American president in 2008, suggested Obama would do well because he was “light-skinned” and spoke “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Reid instantly apologized to the president, and Obama just as quickly forgave him, a crucial step in helping to prevent a wider backlash from the black community.

And their bond may also seem incongruent to Las Vegans who cringe every time Obama uses the tourist-dependent city as a punch line for frugality — as he did for a second time this month by suggesting the government needs to tighten its belt just as families do: “You don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college.”

Obama quickly dashed off a letter to Reid, saying there is “no place better to have fun than Vegas.”

As the grip-and-grin moments begin tonight, at a private fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, and Friday, at events on jobs and the economy, it might be easy to dismiss the Reid-Obama relationship as political expedience. But those watching the president and the majority leader think there is a depth to their bond that goes beyond one politician scratching the other’s back.

These are teammates who have fought alongside each other in Washington’s increasingly hostile political climate and emerged with great respect for the other.

“As long as I am president, I want him to be my majority leader,” Obama told a VIP fundraising event at Caesars Palace nine months ago, during his first postinaugural swing into Nevada.

Will Obama repeat his remark this week? As Obama’s agenda is jeopardized by inaction in Congress and the political climate turns perilous for Reid and other Democrats heading into the fall midterm election, their relationship will be tested.

Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor who writes about U.S. politics, sees a bleak landscape ahead.

“The honeymoon is over, and it is possible the divorce is about to begin,” Zelizer said. “This has been an incredibly strained relationship. In general, there is a perception that the Senate has not delivered. President Obama has proposed, the House has passed and the Senate has stalled.”

When Obama visited Las Vegas as the new president in May, support for him was high nationwide and Nevada’s political environment still echoed the call for change that Obama brought as he won the state with the biggest electoral margin for a Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Today, Nevada’s 13 percent jobless rate and divided opinions on the president’s once-signature domestic priority — health care reform — have left Democratic fortunes in doubt. Obama’s popularity has slipped across the country, as has the party’s 100,000-voter registration advantage in Nevada, with independents shifting away from it.

Reid’s popularity is dismal. Nevada voters don’t seem to appreciate the clout he brings to bear for the small state, or his partisan jabs.

The battle over health care reform has left many Democrats dispirited and ignited Republican opposition. The Democratic majority in the Senate, which swelled to a filibuster-proof 60 last year, has slipped to 59 with the loss of the Massachusetts seat to Republican Scott Brown.

Both Obama and Reid find their fates all the more intertwined. Reid’s campaign can benefit from Obama’s still-shining star quality, which might help motivate tepid voters in Nevada. Obama still relies on Reid to advance his stagnating agenda in the Senate.

“They need each other,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes the Senate for Cook Political Report. “Even if they didn’t particularly like each other, the president would be out there helping Reid.”

The Reid-Obama relationship has been an evolving mystery in Washington. Last spring, Reid disclosed in his autobiography that despite his professed neutrality in the Democratic presidential primary, in fact, he had early on encouraged Obama to run.

The disclosure was stunning because many observers think Reid secretly supported Hillary Clinton. But the depth of Reid’s support for Obama was made clearer last month, when the tell-all 2008 campaign book “Game Change” described in detail a conversation between the two that became the turning point for Obama’s political future.

The two became fast colleagues, some might say friends — Reid helping show Obama the ropes in the Senate; Obama returning from the campaign trail when Reid needed his vote. They spoke almost daily during the campaign.

Now they are so in tune with each other’s quirks that Obama doesn’t blink when Reid hangs up on him — as the senator often does when he is finished with a phone conversation.

In many ways the two are an odd pairing — the president with the oratory that has moved millions, and the majority leader whose one-liners often do more political harm than good.

Yet Reid and Obama share similarities rooted in difficult childhoods — Reid the son of an impoverished miner; Obama, a mixed-race child raised by a single mom — and their ability to achieve despite treacherous odds.

The White House official said the president’s relationship with Reid is unique. Reid’s role is even more valued in the newly changed political climate because he is seen as a leader who is there to “get things done.”

“It is clear these are two people who have a lot of admiration of each other,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University who studies Congress.

“A lot of these trips” — for a president to appear alongside a lawmaker — “are pro forma. I think this is sincere. There’s a lot of feeling behind it.”

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