Obama's populist pitch unifies House Democrats
“Long may it last,” said Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., on the prospect of a drawn-out, bare-knuckle GOP nomination fight between top candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
House Democrats, who gathered for their annual three-day retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, echoed many of the themes from Obama’s State of the Union speech on economic fairness, boosting manufacturing and helping middle-class Americans, a reflection of campaign messaging and a recognition that their fate is inextricably linked to the president. They held a series of closed-door sessions on strategy for the coming year and later spoke to reporters.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will address the group on Friday. It’s a more upbeat Democratic caucus than the one Obama encountered last year when backbiting and frustration split Democrats after a thrashing in the November 2010 midterm elections.
Being out of power for a year will do that. So will a week in which Democrats saw some positive signs, from Obama’s address to polls showing more voters think the country is on the right track, to a daring hostage rescue of an American in Somalia. Signs of an economic rebound are prevalent; Commerce Secretary John Bryson told the Democrats that of the 3 million new jobs, 300,000 were in manufacturing.
As for the Democrats’ own finances, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised more than $61 million last year and has $11.6 million cash on hand. It also eliminated a lingering debt.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen Democrats this united,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.
That unity will be tested by months of campaigning and legislative fights as well as clear signals from Obama that he will run against Congress.
While Democrats talked about message, Obama was on a three-day, five-state swing that included a stop in Aurora, Colo., where he told the crowd, “We’re not going to wait for Congress,” on some issues such as producing clean energy to power 3 million homes. He made similar arguments in his speech.
Democratic leaders said Obama should run against a “do-nothing Congress” to highlight for American voters how Republicans have obstructed his agenda. Yet that kind of campaign strategy could be equally damaging to Democrats, who hold 191 seats in the House and control the Senate by a narrow margin, 51-47, plus two independents who generally vote with them. Public approval ratings for Congress have hit all-time lows, dipping to the teens. Voters easily could send scores of members from both parties packing in November.
Republicans signaled they have a ready response to the White House strategy.
“The president can blame anyone he wants, but it won’t change the fact that this year will be a referendum on his economic record,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
For now, Democrats will press ahead with an agenda and rhetoric that mirrors Obama’s.
In his State of the Union speech, Obama called for requiring millionaires to pay at least 30 percent in taxes, the so-called Buffett rule, named after a recommendation by billionaire financier Warren Buffett, who benefits from a low 15 percent tax rate on investments, that he be required to pay a higher rate than his secretary. The president also pleaded for legislation that rewards companies that create jobs in the United States instead of shipping them overseas.
Senate Democrats said this week they will move ahead this year with legislation.
Obama also said he would sign a bill that would ban lawmakers from buying and selling stock based on insider information. Senate Democrats signaled they would consider a bill next week.
House Republicans, not Democrats, have the final say on what legislation comes to the floor. Still, House Democrats say the messaging is in sync.
“I think that’s led to a real spirit of optimism for the election,” Andrews said. “A realistic spirit but an optimistic one.”
Democrats face a tough challenge in recapturing the House as Republicans have shored up their vulnerable lawmakers through redistricting. The GOP scoffs at the notion that Democrats can win the 25 seats necessary to take control.
Still, in a sign of Democratic boldness, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., sported a button that said “Thanks Obamacare,” the derisive shorthand that Republicans use to describe the president’s overhaul of the health care system.
Schakowsky said there may come a time when “Obamacare might be up there with Social Security.”