Obama Fires Up House Democrats (Updated)
Updated 10:55 p.m. | PHILADELPHIA — A fiery President Barack Obama addressed House Democrats Thursday night, saying while there’s more work to do in restoring the economy, Democrats can’t be shy about what they’ve already accomplished.
His remarks, delivered in the ballroom of a Sheraton hotel on the second evening of the House Democratic retreat, were tailored to the caucus’s new strategy: Focus the party’s message on growing the middle class and take full credit for the nation’s economic recovery of the past six years.
“Obviously we were all disappointed by the outcome of this election. There were a lot of reasons for it, and I’m happy to take some of the blame,” Obama told the assembled members, their families and their staffers. “One thing I’m positive about is, when we’re shy about what we care about, when we’re defensive about what we’ve accomplished, when we don’t stand up straight and proud … ”
He then began to list — his voice rising to a campaign stump speech crescendo as members rose to their feet in wild applause — accomplishments on health insurance, immigration legislation and “middle-class economics.”
He said he would “happily veto” Republican efforts to undo the Affordable Care Act — not surprising, but a crowd-pleaser nonetheless — along with legislation to roll back the financial regulatory overhaul bill known as Dodd-Frank and a measure targeting his executive orders on immigration.
He slammed Republicans for risking a Homeland Security Department shutdown over those executive actions, saying, “These are the guys concerned about borders, about terrorism? Now you want to make a political point?”
And Obama crowed about proving the critics — namely, Republicans — wrong.
“It’s pretty rare when you have two visions, a vigorous debate and then you test who’s right,” Obama said. “And the record shows that we were right.”
In a nod to the middle-class economics message, Obama said Republicans now seem to acknowledge — in rhetoric, at least — the need to help the middle class and address income stratification. He made specific mention to one “former presidential candidate” on the Republican side, Mitt Romney, who “suddenly is just deeply concerned about poverty.”
While Obama poked fun at Republicans, he said Democrats “need to stand up … and not be defensive about what we believe in.”
In closing he stepped back from the podium and took a drink of water. “I’m fired up!” he said in a reference to a famous catchphrase from his 2008 presidential run.
An ensuing question-and-answer period was closed to the press, but a source in the room told CQ Roll Call the president addressed higher education, the Affordable Care Act, funding for veterans care and criminal justice changes.
“There was also a discussion of national security threats around the world and the president reiterated his call for Congress to pass a bipartisan [Authorization for Use of Military Force] to show the world America stands united against ISIL,” according to the source.
“In discussing trade, the president said he recognizes the deals signed in past decades were not perfect. The president conceded that no new trade agreement will fix all of the real challenges that arise from globalization and past trade arrangements, but was firm that the agreements he is negotiating will be an improvement from the status quo for US workers and businesses.”
Obama told members that officials would know within “two or three months” whether diplomacy could prevail with respect to Iran, said a source in the room.
On trade, another person attending the question-and-answer session said Obama urged members to “keep your powder a little dry” and “get informed.”
He said “we … are looking out for the same people,” according to that person’s readout.
Sources said the president promised the administration would make a “substantive case” and would share with members more information about the proposed trade deals. Rep. Sander M. Levin, D-Mich., had openly criticized the administration earlier in the day on that front.
While the president apparently offered some details behind closed doors, his public remarks were light on specific policy proposals, with no mention of issues like trade or a tax overhaul.
Obama, with no more elections to win and two years left to go, kept things friendly and appeared to relish his time in the spotlight: He cracked jokes about Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s perfectly coiffed hair, poked fun at caucus Vice Chairman Joseph Crowley’s imperfectly coiffed hair and wondered about the future of new DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján’s hair.
Obama said he remembered a time when he, himself, was young and attractive. “Let’s see how long that lasts,” Obama said of the 42-year-old, dark-haired Luján. “He’ll have hair like Steve Israel,” he said, referring to Luján’s silver-maned predecessor.
In the week since his State of the Union address, Democrats who have felt demoralized since the party’s midterm drubbing have said they think their president has a renewed vigor to fight with them to win back seats in 2016. They say his speech touched on the important issues they want to focus on in the next cycle and feel there is a renewed partnership.
The honeymoon could be short-lived with substantial legislative challenges on the horizon, especially when it comes to giving the White House fast-track authority to enter into trade negotiations.
But at least on Thursday night, House Democrats seemed ready to believe that they and Obama were squarely on the same team.
“I’m going to be out there making the case every single day,” he said, “and I hope you join me.”
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.
Correction Jan. 30, 8:09 a.m.
An earlier version of this post misspelled Rep. Sander M. Levin’s name.