Obama To Enlist Democratic Governors' Support

Thursday at fundraising dinner, President Obama told Democratic governors that their Republican counterparts are making it harder for people to get health insurance or exercise their right to vote.

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Last night at a Democratic Governors Association fundraising dinner, President Obama evoked a bit of partisan politics. He told Democratic governors that their Republican counterparts are making it harder for people to get health insurance or to exercise their right to vote. This coming Monday the president will meet with the bipartisan National Governors Association at the White House.

As NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, governors are no longer immune to the same partisanship they love to complain about in Washington.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: When the National Governors Association comes to Washington every winter, President Obama invites them to the White House. Last year he enlisted them in a push for bipartisanship.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Whatever your party, you ran for office to do everything that you could to make our folks' lives better. And one thing that I know unites all of us and all of you, Democrats and Republicans, and that is, the last thing you want to see is Washington get in the way of progress.

LIASSON: But this year, White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest explained that the president's message will be a little more partisan. He'll use the speech to highlight proposals like early childhood education and job training that he says are popular with Republicans outside of Washington, if not Republicans in Congress.

JOSH EARNEST: There is strong bipartisan support among that group of governors for some of the proposals that the president's advocating that are currently being blocked by Republicans in Congress, from raising the minimum wage to investing in early childhood education to reforming our job training programs. Those are the kinds of proposals that governors, Republican governors, all across the country are supportive of in their states.

So there's no reason that Republican members of Congress shouldn't be willing to sit down with the president and try and make progress in some of these areas.

LIASSON: Mr. Obama probably won't find much help from Republican governors because governors have the same partisan divide as politicians in Washington. Alan Ehrenhalt of Governing Magazine says state executives used to see themselves as governors first and members of a political party second.

ALAN EHRENHALT: Governors were one of the last strongholds of bipartisanship, but that's gone away and you see the same partisan forces acting upon the governors as act upon Congress in the White House. And at one point and for decades, governors were an entity unto themselves and they saw their being not part of the national government establishment as a binding force for them.

But now you have Republicans going one way and Democrats going another.

LIASSON: There are governors who skip the NGA meetings altogether and prefer to attend the Republican Governors Association or the Democratic Governors Association. Several Republican governors were reported to have stopped paying dues to the NGA. That doesn't mean that governors don't have big agendas. There's no shortage of changes coming out of the states.

Governors are passing laws on voting rights, education and job training. Ray Scheppach is the former executive director of the NGA.

RAY SCHAPPACH: They're still getting things done within individual states. It's more, I think, at the federal level that they don't have as big an impact as they once did. And it's unfortunate, 'cause, you know, with the exception of Medicare and Social Security and the national parks and defense, states run all of the federal programs.

LIASSON: Schappach says big national reforms used to come from the states. Welfare reform, for example, was begun by Republican and Democratic governors.

SCHAPPACH: Welfare reform depended on a lot of experimentations that states did with respect to time limits, work requirements, providing more funds for education and also for child care. And that eventually percolated up to the Congress to develop welfare reform that I think was signed by President Clinton in 1996.

LIASSON: But now governors are divided along familiar red/blue lines. Take the Affordable Care Act. All Democratic governors have embraced the law. Republican governors, for the most part, have not. Education standards and testing are another example. The Common Core curriculum was developed by the NGA and adopted by 45 states. Now it's mired in controversy.

SCHAPPACH: I think we get better government when the states are a united voice and when they speak with one voice about what the federal government is doing. The governors essentially lose their status as players in the system when they're fighting with each other.

LIASSON: So while states are still laboratories of innovation and fertile incubators for presidential hopefuls, they are no longer a powerful voice for change at the federal level. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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