By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau
CAMBRIDGE, MD — President Barack Obama delivered an election-year pep talk to Democrats on Friday, thanking his congressional allies for showing courage and unity “under the most difficult circumstances” in budget battles with Republicans.
Speaking at the House Democratic caucus’s three-day retreat here, the president said the recent passage of a debt-ceiling increase without any concession to Republican demands showed the power of a unified Democratic Party.
But while praising the Democrats and offering Valentine’s Day wishes to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Obama notably did not repeat the prediction he made last year that she would regain her role as speaker after this November’s elections. Rather than talk of regaining their majority, the most optimistic Democrats now talk of cutting into the Republicans’ current 32-seat advantage in the House.
Instead of forecasting that the party would regain the House majority for the final two years of his tenure, Obama thanked Democrats for showing “time and time again, under the most difficult circumstances, the kind of courage and unity and discipline that has made me very, very proud.”
“The fact that we are no longer going to see, I believe, anybody try to hold our government hostage and threaten the full faith and credit of the United States of America in order to contract policy concessions, the fact that we were able to pass a clean debt limit is just one example of why when you guys are unified, you guys stick together, this country is better off,” Obama said.
“I could not be more thankful or more appreciative, prouder of what you’re doing.”
The House passed a debt-limit increase on Tuesday, well before a Feb. 27 deadline, only because the overwhelming majority of Democrats in the House and Senate voted for it. Passage marked the first time in several years that Congress dealt with the debt ceiling without a last-minute standoff over policy issues.
Democratic unity was also key to passing Obama’s landmark health care reform law, which Republicans have sought to use as an electoral weapon against Democrats in contested districts. The president sought to reassure Democrats that the law is, after initial technical problems, back on track, with enrollments exceeding projections in January.
“I just want to say thank you for all of you hanging in there tough on an issue that, I think, 10 years from now, five years from now, we’re going to look back and say this was a monumental achievement that could not have happened had it not been for this caucus,” he said.
Vice President Joe Biden, who preceded Obama in speaking to the group, similarly urged lawmakers to “keep your eye on the ball” and focus not “on the few things that we do have problems with” but “on all that we have going for us going into this election.”
Biden, who had to postpone his scheduled visit to the gathering Thursday because of the snowy conditions in Washington, argued that public sentiment was now on Democrats’ side on most of the major issues. He cited polls done for the party that purportedly showed 55 percent of voters in swing districts are against repealing the health care law.
“This is the first time in my career … where on every major issue, the American people agree with the Democratic Party,” Biden argued, while also assuring nervous Democrats that there were “three political lifetimes” between now and the November elections.
Biden said Democrats also stood to benefit from divisions within the GOP, noting the multiple responses from Republican figures to the president’s State of the Union address.
“There isn’t a Republican Party. I wish there were,” Biden said. “I wish there was one person you could sit across the table from, make a deal, make a compromise and know when you got up from that table it was done.”
Though Washington now appears to be in a cease-fire in the fiscal battles that have characterized the last three years of divided government, Biden warned of what would come if Republicans gained in elections this November.
“Folks, does anyone here in this room think that the Republican Party has walked away from the Ryan budget?” he asked, referring to the GOP budget plan that would have cut back on many domestic social programs.
“Does anybody in this room think if they, in fact, are able to take the Senate or increase their numbers, or maintain their numbers in the House, that that’s not where we’re going to get back to?”
Democrats spent three days here at their annual policy retreat plotting strategy for the year ahead. Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) who chairs the House Democrats’ campaign committee, announced to members that Obama would be a key partner in their election efforts, at least financially, by headlining at least six fundraisers for them this year. His presentation included a video montage of scenes meant to motivate underdogs, including a lighthearted clip from the movie “Animal House.”
Party leaders said they were, in the words of Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, “optimistic but very realistic” about the challenge ahead, and that they believe they’ve weathered the worst of political storms over the health care law’s rollout.
“We changed the conversation back to the conversation that we know we win, which boils down to whose side are you on,” Himes said. Republicans, he said, “seem to be building a plan based on November of 2013 rather than November of 2014.”
AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan