On Thursday evening, as I waited with the press corps for President Obama’s address to the House Democratic Caucus Retreat in Philadelphia, I knew the themes he would cover. He would chastise Republicans for their intransigence, and challenge Democrats to unite. He would speak of an abiding hope for the middle class, and highlight an America that has rebounded under his leadership.
And why wouldn’t he? Just hours before Obama delivered his speech to House Democrats, the U.S. Dept. of Labor reported that new unemployment claims had dropped to their lowest level since 2000.
That news, like much of what we’ve heard about the economy under President Obama in recent years, is encouraging. Unemployment dropped to less than 6 percent under his stewardship, the budget deficit has been cut in half, and under Obama, America is the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas.
Still, Democrats spent months running from that reality—afraid to be associated with a President whose poll numbers lagged far behind the economic numbers.
But after that failed strategy cost them mightily at the polls, Democrats have changed their tune. Not only are they embracing the President. They are quoting him.
“We have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on earth,” Hoyer said, repeating the soaring rhetoric of the State of the Union address Obama delivered two weeks ago. “It’s now up to us to choose what we want to be.”
Hoyer’s remarks were met with rousing applause, and shortly after, the President took the stage. He was there to speak to House Democrats whose goal was to shore up policy and political strategy in preparation for the upcoming Presidential campaign. Perhaps more importantly, he was there to speak to a party that had been trounced in the last Congressional campaign.
“We were all disappointed with the outcome of the last election,” Obama said. “There were a lot of reasons and I’m happy to take on some of the blame. When we’re shy about what we care about and defensive about what we accomplished; when we don’t stand up straight and proud and say yes, we believe in healthcare, and we believe everybody should have it; when we don’t stand up straight and proud and say yes, we believe that every American should be able to go to college …We need to stand up and go on offense and not be defensive about what we believe. That’s what makes us Democrats.”
I watched the crowd jump to its feet and cheer the President even as he derided them for their unwillingness to stand for what they believed. And then, as if to further prove his point, he ticked off a list of numbers.
“We’ve seen 11 million jobs created,” he said. “That’s the best job growth since the 90s. We’ve had the steepest drop in unemployment in 20 years. The deficit has been cut by two-thirds. There are over 10 million people with health insurance who didn’t have it before.”
As the crowd once again stood to its feet, he touted better high school graduation rates, higher college attendance, and clean energy production.
He saved the sarcasm for Republicans.
“I hear Republicans are holding their 50th or 60th vote next year to repeal or undermine the Affordable Care Act,” Obama said. “I’ve lost count at this point. But here’s something easy to remember. If that bill ever actually reached my desk, I would happily veto it.”
Applause rang out, and Obama ran through a list of other measures he would veto if they came to his desk, including any bill that made what he called a broken immigration system more complicated.
There was laughter, as well, as Obama spoke of the sudden change among some Republicans.
“Their rhetoric is sounding pretty Democratic,” he said. “One Republican Senator, who shall remain nameless, is suddenly shocked—shocked—that the top 1 percent is doing really well and everybody else is getting squeezed.”
As the laughter filled the room, he went on to talk about a presidential candidate assumed to be Mitt Romney, expressing surprise at his sudden concern for the poor.
“I consider imitation the sincerest form of flattery,” Obama said. “Come on board!”
The next day Romney dropped his name from consideration for the Republican nomination.
But in truth, Obama can’t focus on those who oppose him. I suspect that’s why he was careful to extend an olive branch, saying he was willing to work with Republicans who were willing to work with him.
If his legacy is to be solidified, and if the Democratic Party is to make any political gains, Obama must use his last two years to lay groundwork for the future. Not just because it’s politically expedient, but also because it’s right.
“I’m going to be out there making the case every single day,” he said.
The Democrats had better follow suit, because as they learned in the last election, there could be hell to pay if they don’t.