House Democrats get pep talk from President Obama at strategy retreat

President urges House Democrats to stop running from touchy topics, proudly embrace party achievements, values

House Democrats gathered at a strategy retreat this week in dire need of a pep talk, after seeing their influence sharply reduced by last year's election and enduring a number of internal debates that eroded morale.

They got one from President Obama, who urged them to stop running from touchy topics like the Affordable Care Act or the economy, and instead to start proudly embracing the party's achievements and core values.

"The record shows that we were right," Obama told the dispirited lawmakers Thursday, trying to spread some of his postelection swagger.

Yet as they begin a third term in the House minority, Democratic leaders face their smallest caucus in 70 years and a growing list of complaints from rank-and-file members over policy fights, messaging and more.

The good news for Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and other Democratic leaders is that their postelection soul-searching has been largely overshadowed by the new Republican majorities' more public divisions.

First, House Republicans passed legislation to undo the president's new immigration policy, a bill that some of their Senate colleagues will have a hard time supporting. Then House Republican leaders were forced to pull an antiabortion bill because party moderates objected to key provisions.

"We have fiddled while Rome has burned for the middle class," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said of the Republican agenda so far this year.

As Democrats left their three-day gathering Friday, there was a sense that they needed to unite behind a new middle-class-focused message before the GOP beat them to it.

"The Republican Party is going to try to claim this resurgence, and they're going to misrepresent that it was because of … policies that they supported," Vice President Joe Biden warned Friday. "It's absolute malarkey, as we Irish say. It's nothing further from the truth. But if we don't speak up and reassert the case we made, it may stick politically."

Democratic leaders conducted a survey seeking their restive members' input on what went wrong last year and what themes they should unite behind now. Only half responded, but the results indicated in part that the party's message was too muddled.

"It's not that the Democrats don't have a message. It's that we had too many," Pelosi told reporters here. "The public didn't see the clarity and the focus of the message."

Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who leads a communications and policy operation for the party, presented the results of the internal survey to members here. He said the obvious consensus was to promote the concerns of the middle class and acknowledged that the public had come to see Democrats as the party of the poor.

"There is a sense, I believe, that many people in the middle class have that if you're very rich, the government will bail you out, and if you're very poor, the government will help you out. But if you're somewhere in between, the government just doesn't care about you," he said. "That's why we've got to focus on those investments and that support for the security of the middle class."

In that vein, Democrats — tweaking James Carville's 1992 campaign line, "It's the economy, stupid" — are coalescing around the mantra, "It's my paycheck, stupid."

The relationship between congressional Democrats and the administration, often rocky, was arguably at a low point in November. In his remarks Thursday, the president said he was prepared to take his share of the blame for steep losses. Biden was more apologetic for the White House, saying, "We have been a political heavy load to carry."

The issue most likely to divide the party in the near term is trade, with Obama seeking support for so-called fast-track authority to consider new agreements, primarily the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership being negotiated with Pacific nations.

In an address to Democrats, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka urged members to oppose a bill giving Obama fast-track authority unless the administration disclosed the terms of the deals they wanted to expedite.

"Trade is one of the middle-class issues, and it has to be looked at in terms of the potential impact on the middle class," said Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee.

In a Q-and-A session after his public remarks, the president pleaded: "Keep your powder a little dry," according to someone present, who shared details of the private session on condition of anonymity. Obama added later: "Get informed, not by reading the Huffington Post."

But Obama and Biden both said that the administration was charting a course focused on the middle class that they believed the party could unite behind, and that the time for internal squabbling was over.

"Stop nitpicking, those of you who said we should have done A, B, C or D," Biden said Friday. "Embrace success. Make the case. Fight."

Members have largely applauded the president's newly aggressive approach and say they'll seek to build on it.

But ironically, it is last year's Democratic losses that have allowed Obama to go up against a Republican-dominated Congress in a way he couldn't when Democrats still had a Senate majority.

"I wouldn't want to say to Harry Reid, 'I'm glad you lost the majority,'" said Hoyer, the Democratic whip. "Frankly, it's going to be somewhat beneficial because it will make it very clear who wants to do what.... The president is freed up."

michael.memoli@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikememoli

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