Stephanie Grace: Obama gives Landrieu a present

Maybe the spirit of the season got a hold of him — Christmas, sure, but also the launch of a new year that happens to feature a big midterm election. Or perhaps the timing’s just a coincidence.

Either way, President Barack Obama seems poised to present Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., with a heck of a holiday gift.

The word out of Washington this week is that Obama is about to appoint retiring U.S. Sen. Max Baucus to be ambassador to China. His departure would set off a chain reaction that would, by all accounts, position Landrieu to become chairwoman of the all-important Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, assuming Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon vacates the post to take Baucus’ place leading the even-more prestigious Finance Committee.

While the move would help the Democrats’ chances to keep the Montana seat by allowing that state’s Democratic governor to appoint Baucus’ replacement, it also would give Landrieu a perch from which to reiterate many of the messages she hopes to send as she tries to defend her own seat against Republicans who have targeted it for pickup.

The post would highlight her friendliness to one of the state’s biggest industries, help her raise money from its powerful players and raise the stakes for those who might consider going against her.

It would give her a platform from which to show off her independence from the Obama administration on issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline, which Landrieu vocally supports, major environmental groups forcefully oppose and Obama is still contemplating. The pipeline, if completed, would extend from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

It would position her to demonstrate her ability to use her seniority to bring home the bacon, in this case, perhaps, legislation to send more money from offshore oil and gas royalties to coastal states.

It would even give her a potentially enthusiastic partner across the aisle: the panel’s ranking Republican, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. Like Landrieu, Murkowski is one of the more centrist senators from her party, and like Landrieu, she comes from an energy-producing state that also would like to cash in on oil production in nearby federal waters. The two are said to have a good personal relationship.

Whether or not Obama actually chose Baucus for the China job with Landrieu in mind, it’s really the least he could do.

Like other red-state Democrats who supported the president’s health care law, Landrieu acted on her own free will when she cast her vote, and was ready to defend the benefits of greater and often cheaper health care coverage against inevitable attacks.

But between the administration’s catastrophic rollout to Obama’s insistence that those who like their insurance can keep it — a talking point that Landrieu and other Democrats adopted, and that was predictably designated the “Lie of the Year” by a major independent fact check operation once insurance companies started canceling policies that didn’t meet the new law’s minimum standards — she’s wound much more on the defensive over her vote than she could have anticipated.

In fact, the seemingly bottomless controversy has amounted to a generous, if unintentional, gift from Obama to Landrieu’s detractors.

Outside political groups have already started running television ads attacking her vote, as GOP hopefuls, led by Rep. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, have been sitting back and enjoying the show. Landrieu has been forced to start an early advertising campaign to try to blunt the damage.

The new post, should Baucus be confirmed and everything else unfold as planned, would help her change the subject, which, her supporters hope, might help her win a fourth six-year term. And given how narrowly the Democrats control the Senate, it could even, conceivably, help the party hold on to the chamber’s majority.

That would make this one present that Obama would enjoy every bit as much as Landrieu does.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.