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Obama tries to rally Democrats, defends healthcare overhaul

Attempting to rouse a party shaken by electoral setbacks, President Obama told fellow Democrats on Saturday that he would press ahead with his healthcare proposal and other pieces of his ambitious agenda, rejecting suggestions that a more cautious approach might minimize losses in the upcoming midterm elections.

Obama, who left the White House during a blizzard, sought to rally Democratic National Committee members in a speech that was part pep talk and part prescription for what the party must do to overcome problems reflected by the loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat held by the late Democratic icon Edward M. Kennedy.

Trimming goals and postponing hard choices are the wrong approach, the president said.

In an emotional high point of his 20-minute address, Obama acknowledged that the public wonders whether elected officials can overcome the immense power of lobbyists and special interests and “confront the real problems that touch their lives.”

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He said: “So just in case there’s any confusion out there, let me be clear. I am not going to walk away from health insurance reform. I’m not going to walk away from the American people. I’m not going to walk away from this challenge. I’m not going to walk away from any challenge. We’re moving forward.”

The snowstorm affected the DNC’s winter meeting, with some delegates unable to attend because of flight cancellations and sporadic subway service. The presidential motorcade was not spared. Before the five-minute drive to the event a few blocks away, two vehicles in the convoy were involved in a minor accident in the White House driveway -- an ambulance lost control on the snow-covered road and veered into an SUV carrying reporters. No one was hurt.

Obama’s appearance came at a time when the party’s core membership has been demoralized. With the president’s poll numbers dropping, some Democratic congressional campaigns are weighing whether to distance themselves from Obama before the midterm elections in November.

The party’s leadership has become a target. Steven Ybarra, a former DNC member from Sacramento, said in an interview: “The DNC is a disaster. Have we seen the chairman of the DNC [Tim Kaine] on any of the Sunday programs talking about how the party is going to react to any of this? Does anybody know who the chairman of the Democratic National Committee is?”

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Ybarra said Obama should install his 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, as head of the DNC.

Roberto Prats, a DNC member from Puerto Rico who attended the conference, said, “The mood is one of shock.” He said members had found it tough to digest the loss of Kennedy’s seat to Republican Scott Brown. Brown was sworn in to the Senate last week, depriving Democrats of a supermajority that the president had hoped would help pass his agenda.

In this worrisome environment, Obama tried to rally the party by saying it was no time to abandon the bold agenda charted at the beginning of his administration. He did not specify how he intended to advance a healthcare bill that is stalled in Congress. But he said it must pass.

“Yes, we could continue to ignore the growing burden of the runaway cost of healthcare,” Obama said. “The easiest thing to do right now would be to just say, ‘Ah, this is too hard. Let’s just regroup and lick our wounds and try to hang on.’ ”

“But here’s the thing,” the president told his party. “If we walk away, we know what will happen. We know that premiums and out-of-pocket expenses will skyrocket this decade and the decade after that, and the decade after that.”

Obama dished out some blame for Republicans, who he said have abdicated their responsibility.

The Republicans, he said, “made a political decision all too often to jump in the back seat, let us do the driving and then critique whether we were taking the right turns. That’s OK. That’s part of what it means to govern.”

Invoking Democratic presidents who faced tough challenges, Obama mentioned the struggles of Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

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“I know we’ve gone through a tough year,” he said, “but we’ve gone through tougher years.”

peter.nicholas@ latimes.com


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