President Obama gave a pep talk to Senate Democrats over drinks at the White House this week, telling them a rising economy and ObamaCare’s healthy numbers should give them optimism about keeping their majority in November.
Democrats are nervous about losing control of the Senate because of Obama’s low approval ratings and Republican success in recruiting candidates and beating back the Tea Party.
Unlike the last time the president hosted a reception for Democratic senators, he served them drinks and food as soon as they arrived instead of making his guests first sit through a formal question-and-answer session.
One Democratic senator said someone "must have said something" to Obama about the arrangement last year because this time, the drinks and "nibbles" were available from the start.
Also, Obama did away with the rows of chairs and mingled with the lawmakers. He spoke on a microphone while they gathered around him in the East Room.
“This time as soon as we walked in, we had drinks; we had food; we had all that first and it was good. And then Obama came in and rather than having us sit we just stood around," said the source. "It was a much better format than that formal thing before. You get the drinks first, you know?"
“It was very nice; there were a couple of hors d’oeuvres, and everybody was able to get a drink whether it was wine or Coke or whatever,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “It was a good opportunity to listen. I actually think the important thing we need to do much more is more personal interactions rather than speeches.”
Feinstein said Obama “emphasized the positive” and talked about Democrats having the high ground on raising the minimum wage, pay fairness, the Head Start early education program and “building the infrastructure we need.”
“It gets diffused by all of the noise, so he sort of brought it back home,” she added.
She said lawmakers were glad to be able to buttonhole the president and vice president to hash out their concerns and priorities.
“My experience around here is when something is personal, it really motivates,” she said.
“There was a very good spirit,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “It was generally a very positive meeting.
Kaine said the president didn’t try to “sugarcoat” the difficult political challenge Democrats face in November but encouraged them to have an upbeat attitude.
“We’ve been in a tough time. We’ve been in a tough political climate. Lead with the positive,” Kaine said, paraphrasing the meeting’s message.
The president told his allies to emphasize the past 51 consecutive months of private sector job creation and the improved unemployment rate, which now stands at 6.3 percent, compared to its high of 10 percent in October of 2009.
“He said, ‘Look, you got to be positive. You’ve got 50-some straight months of employment gains. We’re in much better shape now than where we were in terms of deficit, in terms of job creation,’ and he just went through all these things,” said a Democratic senator who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the meeting.
Obama also touted the successes of the Affordable Care Act, noting that more people have health insurance, and Congress has filled gaps in coverage.
The president, however, acknowledged to lawmakers that Iraq had devolved into a mess. Amid growing concerns about a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia militias, Obama told them to remember, at least American soldiers aren’t dying anymore.
“He said the baddest things are in Iraq, but our kids aren’t getting killed,” said the Democratic senator. “Things are bad, Iraq’s a mess, all that kind of stuff. He said, ‘When we came in, our kids were still getting killed,’ ” referring to the beginning of his administration in 2009.
The president reiterated to allies that his priority in Iraq will be to defend the American embassy and personnel deployed around the country. He made it clear that he does not plan to put more boots on the ground in addition to the 300 advisers he deployed there earlier this month.
“Everyone agrees the highest priority [is] embassy personnel,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.). “The 300 advisers are giving us an analysis of the Iraqi army on the ground and the ISIS forces on the ground to figure out what the state of play.”
Extremist Sunni members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have captured several cities in northern Iraq, including Mosul, the country’s second largest city.
“But the president made it clear, no more troops,” Durbin added.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the meeting was "primarily an opportunity for the president to spend some time talking with Senate Democrats about his legislative agenda and some of the priorities that they share for moving the country forward.”
The spokesman said the evening was not a “strategy session.”
"This more was an opportunity for the president to sit down with Democrats and to talk about some of his priorities, but also to hear from them about some steps that they think that we should be taking to advance our domestic agenda in particular," Earnest added.
— Justin Sink contributed reporting.