Obama energizes House Dems: 'We've got a lot more work to do'

Obama energizes House Dems: 'We've got a lot more work to do'
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PHILADELPHIA – President Obama urged House Democrats on Thursday not to give up the fight for the middle class nor apologize for the accomplishments of the party.

Addressing the Democrats gathered in Philadelphia for their annual issues retreat, the president warned that recent economic gains haven't reached everyone and called on the lawmakers to keep battling for the party's priorities until they do.

"The ground that middle-class families lost over the last 30 years still has to be made up, and the trends that have squeezed middle-class families and those striving to get in the middle class, those trends have not been fully reversed," Obama said.

"So, as much as we should appreciate the progress that's been made, it shouldn't be a cause for complacency, because … we've got a lot more work to do."

Heavy on themes of middle-class empowerment, Obama's speech retreaded much of the turf he covered in last week's State of the Union address, when he outlined an economic agenda focused on middle-class tax relief and efforts to hike working-class wages, which have been stagnant for years.

Obama lamented the outcome of November's midterm elections — taking some of the blame for the Democrats' trouncing at the polls.

But he also suggested the outcome would have been better if more Democrats hadn't been "shy about what we care about" and "defensive about the things we've accomplished" — a shot at a number of Senate Democrats who lost reelection after distancing themselves from the president on issues as diverse as oil production, healthcare reform and climate change.

"We've now got some choices to make," Obama said.

During a question-and-answer session, lawmakers asked the president about a number of issues, including infrastructure, making college more affordable, ObamaCare, the Department of Veterans Affairs and criminal justice reform, according to a Democratic staffer.

The populist themes also framed the Democrats' retreat, where the official slogan — “Grow America’s Economy, Grow American Paychecks” — was trumpeted repeatedly by each of the handful of Democrats who trekked across the street from their convention venue, the Sheraton Society Hill Hotel, to meet the isolated press.

"What you're seeing at this conference is a real focus on the message of: We want to make sure working people are doing well," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters on one such visit.

The gathering comes as Democrats are trying to revamp their image after November's midterms, where they lost 13 House seats and gave the Republicans their largest majority since the Hoover administration.

Behind House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), top Democrats have downplayed the political significance of the midterm results, arguing that an ill-timed storm of global crises, including an Ebola outbreak in Africa and the rise of Islamic terrorists in the Middle East, prevented the Democrats' economic message from reaching voters.

"There was a two-month conflagration of global crises that made it very difficult to break through with a domestic message," Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), who headed the Democrats' campaign arm during the midterm cycle, told reporters Thursday. "I couldn't buy my way onto some of your networks the weekend before the election unless I was willing to talk about Ebola."

Still, there was plenty of grumbling among rank-and-file Democrats in the aftermath of the election drubbing, as some veteran lawmakers voiced concerns that the party lacks a cogent message, while some younger members griped about the lack of fresh faces among the leadership.

In the face of that storm, Pelosi and other top leaders have kept their grip on the party, even as they're attempting to reframe their message to appeal to more voters. As part of that effort, the Democrats have formed two new committees designed to disseminate the party's message and increase voter turnout ahead of 2016.

It remains unclear, though, how the Democrats' new campaign focusing on middle-class economic issues diverges from those of the past, and party leaders struggled this week to explain the distinction.

"It’s not that the Democrats don’t have a message. It’s that we had too many," Pelosi said, explaining why the party's message got muddled last year. 

The Democrats have every reason to stick with the same policy script, as public opinion polls consistently show that voters favor the central provisions of their economic agenda, including a minimum wage hike, immigration reform, an extension of emergency unemployment benefits and more generous childcare benefits.

But that popular support hasn't translated into election gains in recent midterm cycles, leaving them scrambling for a messaging strategy that compels voters to the polls.

Obama, for one, thinks he has the prescription.

"We need to stand up and go on offense and not be defensive about what we believe in," he told the Democrats Thursday night, to a raucous standing ovation.

"That's why we're Democrats. And I promise you, I'm not going out the last two years sitting on the sidelines. I am going to be out there making the case every single day, and I hope you join me."

— This story was updated at 9:35 p.m.

— Justin Sink contributed.