Democrats leave retreat confident Obama will help them retake House in 2014

LANSDOWNE, Va. – House Democrats left their three-day retreat speaking of unity and voicing confidence that President Obama will help them win back a majority in 2014.

While billed as a conference to plot strategy, the annual three-day House Democratic retreat is really an opportunity for lawmakers to get the love and attention from party leaders that they often grumble is lacking throughout the year.

So House Democrats were over the moon with Obama’s commitment of time and money to their caucus over the next two years.

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“The president absolutely ignited the Democratic caucus by announcing this massive commitment,” crowed an ebullient Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The president, during a private session at the Lansdowne Resort on Thursday, pledged to host eight separate fund-raising events for House Democrats in 2013 and more in 2014. The commitment comes after an election cycle in which Obama largely left Democratic congressional candidates to fend for themselves while he focused on his re-election.

And in a public signal of his commitment to helping Democrats retake the House, Obama gave a full-throated endorsement of a return to the Speakership for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“As a byproduct of doing that good work and keeping that focus,” the president said in the televised portion of his remarks, “I would expect that Nancy Pelosi is going to be Speaker again pretty soon.”

In an interview, Israel said Obama called him and Pelosi on the night of his November re-election and pledged his full support to the party. “I’m in in 2014,” Obama told them, Israel recalled. Over several weeks, staffers for the DCCC worked with the White House to work out the details of a specific commitment from the president. He is giving equal support to the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm.

“Today he put his schedule where his heart is,” Israel said.

“We couldn’t ask for anything more,” he said, before quickly adding: “But we will.”

Obama’s fundraising commitment could go a long way toward easing tensions with congressional Democrats that bubbled up during his first term and were an undercurrent throughout the retreat.

“There will be times when you guys are mad at me,” the president said to Democrats as the cameras rolled, “and I'll occasionally read about it.”

Just as Democrats need the president’s help, he is relying on party unity to maximize his public standing as he seeks to enact legislation on guns, immigration and deficit reduction at the heart of his second-term agenda. Obama’s strategy is to mobilize public support for his proposals to heighten pressure on resistant Republicans, and significant cracks in his Democratic ranks would undermine that effort.

“We’re joined by the hip, even if you don’t always like it,” Obama told Democrats after reporters had left the room, according to Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.).

“I think he knows that close relationships with us matter,” Levin said.

Among the complaints from Democrats over the years is that Obama has rarely engaged them personally, taken their support for granted and, whether intentionally or not, lumped them into his frequent denunciations of congressional inaction.

In his speech on gun control to the caucus Wednesday night, Vice President Biden told the Democrats that he was happy to speak to them at the beginning of a legislative push, since he has more frequently been dispatched to sell them on agreements that have been hatched largely without their input.

In Lansdowne, senior Democrats acknowledged the occasional tensions but said they were par for the course between a president and members of his party in Congress.

“You know, I’ve been in the Congress 32 years,” Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. “There’s never been a time when there hasn’t been frustration with the president.”

Hoyer said he believed the caucus was united behind the president, even if they wouldn’t be in step with the White House on every issue.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), the caucus vice chairman, tried to put the occasional complaints in context.

“The reality is, being president of the United States is a tough job, and every member of Congress recognizes that,” he told reporters earlier in the week. “We all would like to have more interaction with the president and the vice president and members of the Cabinet, and I think what is a sufficient amount of interaction is arbitrary. What matters is what we accomplish together.”

“I don't think it ought to be about our personal feelings,” Crowley added, “of whether we feel good about ourselves or whether the president feels good about us. It's really about, what are we [going] to accomplish that can solve the problems before America today.”

When the pep talks were over on Thursday night, any feelings of neglected had been, at least for the moment, forgotten.

“We are as united and galvanized as we have ever been,” proclaimed Israel.

With contentious debates on immigration, guns and the deficit looming, that unity will soon be tested.