Addressing the thinned-out ranks of House Democrats after an election that reduced their numbers to a nearly 70-year low, Obama said he accepted some of the blame for November losses. But he also suggested that some candidates' efforts to distance themselves from their, and his, record played a role.
"We need to stand up and not be defensive about what we believe in!" Obama said.
The upcoming budget fight in Congress could be an opportunity to do that. He argued that after years of the GOP blocking some of his plans and warning that others would result in economic collapse, the results tell another story. But despite positive economic trends, he said, "we've got some more work to do."
"The economy's gotten better, wages are starting to tick up, people are starting to feel better about the economy. But what I think everyone here understands is the ground that middle-class families lost over the last 30 years has to be made up," he said. "And so as much as we should appreciate the progress that's been made, it shouldn't be a cause for complacency."
The president said he welcomed Republicans to offer alternatives to the "middle-class economics" agenda he has outlined over the last month around his State of the Union address. But he mocked some in the GOP who had begun to shift their rhetoric – mentioning an unnamed presidential candidate who "suddenly is just deeply concerned about poverty."
"That's great! Let's go!" Obama teased. "I'm glad that at least the rhetoric has shifted. Let's now make sure that the policies line up with the rhetoric."
At the three-day retreat between the president and House Democrats, party leaders hope to unite the rank-and-file behind a new strategy to regain their footing – a process they say Obama has helped initiate with an aggressive start to 2015.
In his new budget to be released Monday, Obama will propose spending about $74 billion more next year than is allowed under federal spending caps, a revival of his push to end across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration imposed under a bipartisan compromise.
Democrats say there is strong support for his plan, which they see as helping frame the debate with Republicans.
"Anybody who's paying attention to our economy knows we have seen significant progress," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. "At the same time the president has recognized that we have a chronic problem of wage stagnation. … The question's going to be who has solid answers to those challenges. The president laid a lot of that out."
"The president, in his State of the Union – he set the table. And now we've got to dish out the meal, legislatively, every day at a time," Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) told reporters.
As chairman of the House Democrats' new policy and communications committee, formed after the election to sharpen the party's message, Israel outlined an approach focused on presenting Democrats as a champion of the middle class – a mantle Republicans also are trying to claim.
Democrats face a number of thorny internal debates, not just on policy but on internal politics, including the role of seniority in determining committee leadership posts.
Trade and tax reform could split the party's progressive and moderate wings.
A majority of Democrats are likely to oppose the president's request for fast-track authority to approve trade agreements over concern that the terms of new deals could cost American jobs. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addressed the caucus Wednesday night, urging them to withhold support until they see details of prospective deals. Obama made no mention of trade in his remarks Thursday.
Kathleen Hennessey and Lisa Mascaro in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.
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