Fiery Obama rallies House Dems for a unified election-year fight

CAMBRIDGE, Md. — President Obama channeled his inner Al Green last week when he delivered an impromptu, a cappella rendition of "Let's Stay Together." On Friday, House Democrats returned the message.

In a gesture of party harmony, House Democrats this week cut their own version of Green's song as a gift for the president — a hat-tip to Obama's solo act at the Apollo Theater, but also an indication that congressional Democrats are behind him 100 percent in the lead up to the November election.

The theme of unity dominated the Democrats' three-day retreat this week on the Eastern Shore, where they gathered to plot strategy for the year ahead. But the feeling of solidarity didn’t fully take hold until Friday, when Obama arrived to rally the troops.

An energized Obama didn't disappoint, exhorting Democrats to cooperate with Republicans when possible, and fight back when necessary.

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“Where they [Republicans] obstruct, where they’re unwilling to act, where they’re more interested in party than in country, or more interested in the next election than the next generation, we have to call them out on it,” he said. “We can’t wait, we can’t be held back."

The relationship between Obama and House Democrats hasn't always been so chummy. House Democrats were livid 13 months ago when the president caved to Republican demands to extend Bush-era tax rates for the wealthy, and many complained last year that the White House wasn’t fighting hard enough for the party’s ideals during skirmishes over the budget. 

Appearing before the lawmakers earlier in the day, Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged the strain, and suggested the Democrats' criticism helped invigorate the administration in the face of Republican opposition.

"The message was heard," Biden said. "And I think we've delivered on that message."

The president touched all the major themes of Tuesday's State of the Union address: Economic fairness; the American Dream; and a sense of shared responsibility that he says is best exemplified by the nation's troops.


“The critical debate in this country right now, the defining question, is whether we are going to restore that sense of an American promise, where if you work hard … you have the chance to get a job that allows you to support your family,” Obama said. “That promise has been eroding for far too many people.

Predicting a Democratic wave in November, Obama referred to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as the “soon-to-be-once-again Speaker of the House," while invoking blue-collar imagery from his visit earlier in the day to Michigan, where he said the economic “ecosystem” would have been “decimated” had he not backed the auto industry bailout.

Throwing red meat to his base, Obama on Friday also called on Congress to keep college-loan interest rates low ahead of expected increases in July. 

"That's what’s scheduled to happen if Congress doesn't act," Obama said in Michigan. "That would not be good for you.” 

Obama addressed one of the sharpest GOP criticisms against him at the Democratic retreat, arguing his policies are designed to level the economic playing field, not foster class warfare.

“This is one of the biggest things I’m going to push back on — that this is class warfare,” he said. “Everybody wants to be rich. The question is — are we creating that opportunity for everybody?"

Democrats responded with relish. Rep. John Larson (Conn.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the president "reignited and energized" Democrats this week in his speech to nation.

"You have made every attempt humanly possible to get them [Republicans] to bring more legislation that will put this country back to work," Larson said as he introduced Obama Friday. "We stand committed, we stand with you to make that happen." 

Rising with spirited applause, Democrats goaded Larson with whoops and catcalls, creating an atmosphere that was more Southern Baptist than Hyatt convention hall.

"What I did not realize, is that you also had a reverend who can preach as good as Al Green," Obama said as he took the podium. "I kept looking for the collection plate."

A number of Democrats this week downplayed any division that's emerged between Congress and the president, arguing that their minor differences are no indication of a party split.

"We don't agree with the White House on every aspect of every policy," said Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.). "But we sure do agree on the broad principles." 

"Unity," echoed Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), "is not necessarily unanimity."