President Barack Obama looked pretty happy during a bill-signing ceremony two weeks ago for his financial regulatory reform bill. The occasion sparked quite a few grins, but none were as warm as the smile the president gave Louisiana Rep. Anh Joseph Cao. After thanking the few Republicans who bucked their party to vote with him, Obama beamed at Cao: "Good to see you, Joe!"
The greeting came from the belly and bore a touch of bromance. You got the sense that these two men knew each other personally. Cao's mere presence at the White House — among the nation's top financial pros and analysts — signaled to everyone that the freshman from New Orleans is firmly in the president's good graces. In fact, some of Wall Street's most powerful tycoons are still reeling from not being invited to the ceremony.
A few weeks earlier, Cao and his wife, Kate, along with their daughters, Sophia and Betsy, volunteered for a community service project in D.C. alongside First Lady Michelle Obama, making packages of healthy food. Media coverage of the event yielded images of the first lady carrying Sophia and Betsy in her arms. They all know each other, too; both families participated in this year's White House Easter egg hunt.
"We have an excellent relationship," Cao said in a phone interview just moments before a town hall meeting at the Cut Off Recreation Center July 26. "Obviously, there are a number of issues we don't agree with one another on, but it's still just a tremendous relationship. I'm able to playfully joke around with him. It's not very formal at all."
Cao says he also was invited to the president's Super Bowl party this year, but inclement weather kept him from being the only Republican in the room. For the record, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was also among the only R's at last year's White House Super Bowl Party — right before he switched to the Democratic Party. It makes one wonder if Obama has broached the subject with Cao.
"Actually, he did mention it once," Cao says, laughing. "I was joking with him about campaigning for me in the coming election. He told me, 'Well, I might do it if you change parties.' But that was the extent of it."
So, would Cao ever consider changing teams? It makes political sense on paper, considering that 65 percent of the 2nd Congressional District's electorate is Democratic. "I have not even considered it," Cao responds, this time more seriously. "It's irrelevant."
But Cao has surely considered what benefits, if any, he might get from his relationship with Obama before the Nov. 2 general election — even if he denies it. "My focus on having a relationship with the president does not concern my re-election. But my good relationship with the president does serve people down here," Cao says. "That has always been my focus, and my re-election does not come into play."
Nonetheless, the Republican freshman is going to need all the Democratic juice he can get if he wants to return to the Hill and hang out with his new pal, the Prez.
According to Cao's campaign polling, conducted by Florida consultant Verne Kennedy, Cao led state Rep. Cedric Richmond, the presumed Democrat frontrunner, by 25 points in late May — weeks before Richmond's formal announcement on June 14. No doubt Democratic pollsters get a different result, but Cao's showing in his own poll is still amazing in light of the fact that Obama got 75 percent of the 2nd District less than two years ago. The Cao poll was based on African-Americans casting 57 percent of the ballots (black registration in the district is more than 61 percent) — and it showed Cao leading Richmond among African-American voters by three percentage points.
Dr. Silas Lee, a Democratic consultant with offices in New Orleans and D.C., says his 2009 polling showed Cao "strong among Democrats," but that was before voters started learning more about his main Democratic opponents, Richmond and state Rep. Juan LaFonta. The thing to remember about any poll is that it's just a snapshot of voter opinions and attitudes at a particular moment in time. Polls are not predictions. In fact, campaigns often change poll results.
"The campaign really hasn't started yet," Lee says. "Once messages are delivered and platforms are compared, we'll see if [Cao's claimed lead] remains static."
Can Cao pull it off?
"I would not be surprised," Lee adds. "Look how he got there." In 2008, facing federal bribery charges, ex-Rep. William Jefferson led a crowded field in the Democratic primary and then beat now-state Rep. Helena Moreno by 10 points in the Democratic runoff. Democrats had at least five alternatives to Jefferson, which split his opposition and helped him face Cao and two lesser-known independents in a hurricane-delayed December general election.
The late general election produced a highly skewed voter turnout. African-American voters literally stayed home in droves, while whites and Republicans embraced Cao enthusiastically. Thanks to key endorsements and an electorate that was less than 50 percent black on Election Day, Cao squeaked into office with a 49.5 percent plurality, beating Jefferson by some 1,800 votes — a political miracle for a man who almost became a Roman Catholic priest.
Richmond dismisses the Obama friendship factor as pie in the sky and an attempt by Cao to cling to power. Richmond says while Obama has often reached out to Cao, the GOP freshman has consistently stood with his Republican colleagues and opposed the president on key agenda items such as health care reform, equal pay for women, the stimulus package, and other Democratic reforms. Cao also is unabashedly pro-life, a position that's earned him encomiums from Catholic groups and statewide Republicans, but may not play as well in a heavily Democratic district.
LaFonta weighed in as well and questioned the validity of Cao's polling. "This is the same guy who said he had the support of the Catholic Church and then had to issue a retraction," LaFonta says, referring to a fundraising letter Cao sent out last month. Archbishop Gregory Aymond sought and received a correction and apology from Cao. "You pay a pollster to make your poll look however you want," LaFonta adds. "That doesn't scare me. People are looking to the Democratic Party for leadership in this election."
In addition, sources close to the National Democratic Committee say "the president fully expects a Democrat to win the district."
Despite his friendship with Obama, Cao doesn't shy away from criticizing the president. He recently issued a press release expressing his "profound disappointment" at the administration's decision to strengthen bilateral relations with Vietnam's communist government. Cao, the first and only Vietnamese-American to serve in Congress, says Hanoi's record on human rights and religious freedom is "atrocious." He says the Vietnamese government doesn't deserve better U.S. ties until it demonstrates greater respect for the freedom and dignity of its own people. "Rather than building stronger ties, the administration should be holding Hanoi's feet to the fire on its human rights record," Cao says.
At the same time, Cao has established himself as the most socially aware member of Louisiana's delegation in the last two years, which could give him a boost among moderates and liberals back home. He's a member of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a congressional caucus that advocates human rights issues, and once met with the Dalai Lama. Last year on the House floor, he commemorated the lives of eight Jesuit priests who were executed in San Salvador 20 years ago.
"The issue of human rights is an issue that affects all of humanity," Cao says. "The moral aspects of life, the ability to promote equality and justice, these are things that are important to me, and I will continue to focus on and fight for religious freedoms. For me, it is a very basic issue."
Could this be one of the reasons Cao's internal polling shows an uptick in support among Democrats? "I believe people are seeing the strong leadership," he says. "They are seeing the hard work and my focus on serving the needs of the people. I believe they are supporting me because of all the work we have done. It's not about party politics or the president. It's about dedication and commitment. ...
"Would a Democratic president ever campaign for a Republican congressman?" Cao asks with a chuckle. "I can always hope it would happen. But at the same time, I don't think it will be a reality."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.