Obama to Democrats: We must lead

February 3, 2010 9:38:18 AM PST
President Barack Obama implored Senate Democrats on Wednesday to stay aggressive in pushing their agenda despite the loss of one vital seat, saying: "We still have to lead."

Obama sharpened his challenge to Republicans in an attempt to put an emboldened opposition on the spot. Obama warned: "We'll call them out when they say they want to work with us, and we extend a hand and get a fist in return."

Speaking to his party's senators at their strategy conference, Obama reminded Democrats they still hold a 59-41 majority, one shy of the 60 needed to overcome Republican filibuster delay tactics. Democrats lost a "super majority" when Republican Scott Brown won in a special election upset in Massachusetts.

Obama said that for Democrats searching for a lesson from that election, "The answer is not to do nothing."

"The American people are out of patience with business as usual," he said.

Obama urged Democrats to push legislation that, above all else, will help people get jobs. He encouraged them to avoid the temptation to "tread lightly, keep your head down and play it safe."

The session came as part of broad outreach by Obama -- to his party, his political opposition and a disgruntled public -- as he seeks to get his agenda back on track.

Yet Obama used particularly harsh language toward Republicans, part of a deliberate strategy to be more combative with the opposition party. He chided Republican senators for, in his view, trying to gum up the works and routinely using the filibuster delaying tactic.

He said Democrats in 2009 had to cast more votes to overcome filibusters than were needed in the 1950s and 1960s combined. "That's 20 years of obstruction packed into just one," he said.

To Democrats seated in front of him at their conference at Washington's Newseum, Obama said: "We've got to finish the job on health care. We've got to finish the job on financial regulatory reform. We've got to finish the job, even though it's hard."

Obama and fellow Democrats are coping with an atmosphere of deep dissatisfaction as they head toward midterm elections this year. The party is trying to prevent big losses in the House and Senate.

The first senators to pose questions to Obama, as TV cameras rolled, face difficult campaigns this year. Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Michael Bennet of Colorado expect strong GOP opponents in November. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched from the Republican Party last year, is being challenged for the Democratic nomination in his state.

Other speakers -- Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Barbara Boxer of California -- also face potentially stiff Republican challenges this fall, though Obama easily carried their states in 2008.

Obama listened patiently to their remarks and called them by their first names.

The president tried to stiffen the resolve of the Democrats. He said if they keep showing progress on issues that affect people's lives, then the politics of 2010 "will take care of themselves."

Obama used the same language toward Republicans as he did toward extremists in the Muslim world in his inaugural address. Of Republicans, he said Wednesday, "We extend a hand and get a fist in return." In his inaugural address last year, he said the United States "will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

Obama was countering the Republican argument that he doesn't accept any of their ideas.

Obama conceded there was a political cost for the health care fight in 2009, when the nation watched a messy, confusing process unfold with key negotiations taking place in private.

"Some of the transparency got lost," Obama said. "And I think we paid a price for it. So it's important, I think, to constantly have our cards on the table."

The president also took a shot at the media. He said cable news shows in Washington are obsessed with politics, and he encouraged senators to turn off the TV and get out among the voters.

"That's part of what the American people are just sick of," Obama said of political coverage. "Because they just don't care. ... They just want to know, 'Are you delivering for me?"'

Much of the conversation centered on the often broken way Democrats said Washington works and how to fix that. Democrats, as the party in power, stand to suffer the electoral consequences most.

Obama said his party must do a better job of highlighting what he sees as Republican gamesmanship. He cited cases of senators placing procedural "holds" on key nominees for reasons that have nothing to do with the appointees themselves. "Let's have a fight about real stuff," he challenged the GOP.


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