President Obama blew through the Seattle area Tuesday, acknowledging the massive wildfires burning across the state, chiding Republicans in Congress as obstructionists, and raising thousands of dollars to aid Democratic candidates.
Touching down shortly after 3 p.m., Obama crisscrossed Lake Washington in a presidential motorcade to headline a pair of fundraisers — one in Seattle and one in Hunts Point — to benefit the Democratic National Committee and a Democratic super PAC.
He spent less than five hours on the ground before departing for San Francisco. The Seattle visit was the first stop on a three-day West Coast fundraising tour, less than four months ahead of midterm elections that could change the balance of power in Washington, D.C.
The visit was criticized by Republicans, who argued the political fundraising spree was ill-timed given major crises at home and abroad.
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The trip came as Obama grapples with a series of high-profile tests of his presidency, from the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine last week, to the eruption of war in Gaza between Israelis and Palestinians, and the humanitarian crisis caused by an influx of Central American minors trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
Even on the road, troubles abroad were not far from the president. While aboard Air Force One on the way to Seattle he called Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to discuss evidence that Russia continues to send weapons and fighters into Ukraine. The Malaysian airline flight originated in Amsterdam, and many of those killed were Dutch citizens.
As he pulled up to his first fundraising event in Seattle, Obama was met by about two dozen demonstrators protesting Israel’s actions in Gaza.
At the Madrona home of commercial real-estate developer Bruce Blume and his wife, Ann, Obama began his remarks with a nod to the fires ravaging Eastern Washington.
He noted the risks that firefighters and others take and said he called to express condolences to the widow of a retired state trooper who died of a heart attack trying to save his home from the Carlton complex fire.
Obama drove to the fundraiser with Gov. Jay Inslee, who briefed him on the blaze, which destroyed more than 150 residential structures. The president said he talked with federal emergency-management officials about providing aid to restore power in the fire areas, and said more aid may be forthcoming.
“I just want to make sure that everybody knows that we are going to be thinking about and then helping people who are being severely affected by these fires,” he told about 250 donors who sipped wine under a white canopy on the lakefront lawn of the Blume mansion. The donors paid between $500 and $20,000 each to attend the event.
Obama tied the fires to a warming planet, saying that while scientists can’t attribute the events of any given year to climate change, “what is clear is the trend lines indicate the potential for increased forest fires.”
Turning to the economy, Obama gave his well-worn stump speech about inheriting a bad economic crisis and the gains that have been made in recent years — 52 months of job growth and the lowest unemployment since 2007.
Despite those advances, Obama said, people remain nervous, partly due to the challenges overseas.
Congress also feels broken to people, Obama said, which leads to cynicism. He noted that he signed a bill into law on Tuesday. “It was shocking,” he said to laughter.
He said he told lawmakers, “Doesn’t this feel good? Let’s do this again,” by passing a federal minimum-wage increase or an immigration overhaul.
But Obama told the Democratic donors he’s been stymied by Republicans who have changed since the days of President Eisenhower building the interstate highways and President Nixon creating the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The problem is not the Republican Party per se,” he said. “The problem is this particular group right now that has kind of gone off the rails.”
Obama’s motorcade crossed the Highway 520 bridge to get to and from the second event, causing temporary shutdowns that added another wrinkle for motorists who already faced weeklong lane closures on Interstate 90.
The second fundraiser, benefiting the Senate Majority PAC, was closed to the media, and organizers refused to divulge fundraising or attendance details.
It was held at the Hunts Point home of former Costco CEO Jim Sinegal and his wife, Jan. The event was billed as a $25,000-per-person dinner for the super PAC that tries to keep Democrats in power in the U.S. Senate.
Obama has criticized the proliferation of super PACs, which can raise unlimited donations. But given U.S. Supreme Court rulings that legitimized the groups, Democrats have argued they’d be stupid to unilaterally disarm and risk being outgunned by Republicans.
Still, Obama’s evolution from a professed campaign-finance reformer to a headliner at a super PAC event is worrisome, said John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan campaign-finance watchdog group.
“At a time when Americans are so concerned about inequality and faith in government, it’s disturbing that the president has to spend such a huge amount of time in the living rooms of rich people with big checkbooks,” he said.
Seattle Times reporters Lynda Mapes, Colleen Wright and Erin Heffernan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner