Obama Urges Democrats to ‘Stand Up Straight,’ Mocks GOP

In Philadelphia, the president sought to energize what has been a weakened and divided party.

US President Barack Obama addresses the House Democratic Caucus retreat on January 29, 2015 in Philadelphia. AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jan. 29, 2015, 3:59 p.m.

PHIL­ADELPHIA — Pres­id­ent Obama de­livered a cam­paign-like ral­ly­ing cry Thursday even­ing to the House Demo­crat­ic caucus, a group that — des­pite a his­tor­ic elect­or­al de­feat and deep di­vides on sev­er­al fronts — claims to be leav­ing its three-day Phil­adelphia re­treat as a united group of happy war­ri­ors.

Obama im­plored his Hill al­lies to de­fend their val­ues, re­mind­ing them of their ac­com­plish­ments and jab­bing Re­pub­lic­ans in the pro­cess. He told the caucus that Demo­crats can’t win “when we’re shy about what we care about, when we’re de­fens­ive about what we’ve ac­com­plished, when we don’t stand up straight and proud.” As mem­bers rose to their feet, he ticked off Demo­crat­ic achieve­ments in areas like health care, im­mig­ra­tion, and col­lege af­ford­ab­il­ity. To mount­ing ap­plause, he told the gath­er­ing to “stand up and go on of­fense and not be de­fens­ive about what we be­lieve in. That’s why we’re Demo­crats!”

Law­makers re­spon­ded en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally to Obama’s speech after a day spent down­play­ing re­ports that their party is a down­cast, di­vided lot. Party lead­ers say they’re in­vig­or­ated, united by a stream­lined elec­tion strategy, an in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar pres­id­ent — and even in­spir­a­tion from the movie Selma.

Obama sought to build on that sen­ti­ment, re­mind­ing mem­bers that their ef­forts haven’t been without res­ults. “Be­cause you and I to­geth­er made some tough choices, some­times some polit­ic­ally un­pop­u­lar choices, Amer­ica has come back,” he said.

Des­pite dif­fer­ences on eco­nom­ic policy, le­gis­lat­ive strategy, and even in­tern­al rules, House Demo­crats said their group is more op­tim­ist­ic than frus­trated. “There’s a nar­rat­ive that the Demo­crats are in dis­ar­ray,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky. “I don’t see evid­ence of that. “¦ There’s a new, in­cred­ible re­solve.”

Party lead­ers’ pro­jec­tion of op­tim­ism will face tough tests over the com­ing term. Out­numbered Demo­crats will be hard-pressed to in­flu­ence policy with a 58-seat de­fi­cit in the House, and that stark num­ber will also make for an up­hill battle in re­claim­ing the ma­jor­ity.

Those chal­lenges can be met, Obama said, be­cause people are real­iz­ing the mer­it of Demo­crat­ic policies. “What we know is that middle-class eco­nom­ics works,” he said. “That’s pretty rare where you have two vis­ions, a vig­or­ous de­bate, and then you test who’s right. And the re­cord shows that we were right.”

He jabbed at Re­pub­lic­ans, who he said are just now real­iz­ing that the 1 per­cent are suc­ceed­ing while many more Amer­ic­ans struggle in poverty. “Even though their policies haven’t quite caught up, their rhet­or­ic is start­ing to sound pretty Demo­crat­ic,” he said. “I con­sider im­it­a­tion the highest form of flat­tery.”

Obama also mocked Mitt Rom­ney, his 2012 Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial foe, who has sug­ges­ted he might ad­opt a new is­sue fo­cus if he runs again in 2016.

“We’ve got a former pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate on the oth­er side who sud­denly is just deeply con­cerned about poverty. That’s great. Let’s go. Come on. Let’s do something about it,” Obama said.

Obama’s speech came after an in­tense fo­cus on middle-class wages at the re­treat — a mes­sage Demo­crats say was muddled be­fore the midterms but re­vived in Obama’s State of the Uni­on ad­dress. That speech, said Rep. Donna Ed­wards, was a “strong state­ment about the dir­ec­tion that he wants to go over these next few years” — and House Demo­crats aim to be­ne­fit from the agenda of their “mes­sen­ger-in-chief.” Obama will lay out his pri­or­it­ies in more con­crete terms Monday when the ad­min­is­tra­tion un­veils its budget pro­pos­al.

Like his House coun­ter­parts, Obama stayed on mes­sage when it came to the middle class. “Are we go­ing to be an eco­nomy in which a few do spec­tac­u­larly well, or are we go­ing to be an eco­nomy in which every­body who’s will­ing to work hard can do well and suc­ceed?” he asked. “What every­body here un­der­stands is that the ground that middle-class fam­il­ies lost over the past 30 years still has to be made up. The trends that have squeezed middle-class fam­il­ies and those striv­ing to get in­to the middle class — those trends haven’t been fully re­versed.”

Party lead­ers were not shy about re­peat­ing that middle-class man­tra over and over throughout the week, ad­mit­ting that “23-point plans” in­stead of simple state­ments of val­ues had doomed their midterm ef­forts. Rep. Steve Is­rael, who helmed the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee in 2014, also blamed is­sues like Ebola, IS­IS, and Rus­sia’s hos­til­it­ies in Ukraine for drown­ing out his party’s elec­tion mes­sage in news cov­er­age. “I couldn’t buy my way onto some of your net­works,” Is­rael said to re­port­ers.

While it’s clear next year’s mes­sage will have the sim­pler fo­cus of boost­ing middle-class wages, Demo­crats don’t yet have an an­swer for how they define that ever-tar­geted in­come group. House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi said the party was try­ing to reach “the middle class and all who as­pire to it. It’s a big range.” Caucus Chair­man Xavi­er Be­cerra talked about grow­ing up poor and said the Demo­crats wer­en’t “put­ting walls up” that would ex­clude people from the middle-class dis­cus­sion.

Is­rael, mean­while, said he wants poor people to join the middle class and middle-class people to be­come wealthy. “It’s about mo­bil­ity more than the middle class,” he said. That was echoed by Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er. “If you look at the past, all classes rose and Amer­ica was bet­ter,” he said.

For now, such vague defin­i­tions and as­pir­a­tions won’t ham­string Demo­crats’ ef­forts. Deep in the minor­ity, their role is re­leg­ated mostly to op­pos­ing GOP le­gis­la­tion — which they say they’ll do with re­newed vig­or. “There’s no ques­tion that the caucus is ab­so­lutely united around “¦ cre­at­ing a con­trast with Re­pub­lic­ans,” Is­rael said.

Sev­er­al mem­bers also cred­ited the “spir­it of Selma” with re­new­ing their fight­ing spir­it. Many mem­bers re­cently watched the civil rights film in a screen­ing at the Cap­it­ol, and Rep. James Cly­burn screened a pair of his­tor­ic Mar­tin Luth­er King, Jr. speeches for mem­bers Wed­nes­day night.

Rep. Ben Ray Lu­jan, the new head of the DCCC, tried to bol­ster that en­ergy with num­bers, telling col­leagues that the Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity is “maxed out” and will have a hard time pro­tect­ing its gains. Demo­crats stopped short of pre­dict­ing they’d re­take the House, however — and Obama joked that the stress of run­ning House Demo­crats’ cam­paign arm would have the 42-year-old Lu­jan look­ing more like the snowy-haired Is­rael in short or­der.

Wheth­er Demo­crats’ op­tim­ism will last bey­ond their Phil­adelphia pep ral­lies — or ex­tends to the mem­bers who did not at­tend — is an open ques­tion. As Obama wrapped up, he charged those in at­tend­ance to “make sure that we are crys­tal clear about what we stand for and what we are fight­ing for.”

When they re­turn to Wash­ing­ton, House Demo­crats will face in­tern­al de­bates on is­sues like trade, Ir­an sanc­tions, and au­thor­iz­ing Obama to send more troops to the Middle East. Trade in par­tic­u­lar has been an is­sue of deep di­vi­sion, with many in the caucus ral­ly­ing their col­leagues to op­pose Obama’s plan to “fast-track” a deal with Pa­cific Rim coun­tries. Ed­wards char­ac­ter­ized a Tues­day morn­ing pan­el on that is­sue as a “lively dis­cus­sion” with “a lot of dif­fer­ent view­points.”

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