Dems launch retreat vowing to boost middle-class incomes

House Democrats on Wednesday launched their annual issues conference with a sharp focus on efforts to hike wages for the middle class.

Huddled in Philadelphia for a three-day conference, party leaders praised the economic gains of recent months but were quick to lament that those benefits have largely eluded working-class Americans. 

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With a populist message they're hoping will distinguish them from Republicans, the Democrats are vowing to spend the next two years working to level those uneven gains.

"We're growing the economy, but the stark truth is that we're not growing paychecks at the same time," said Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip. "We're going to focus like a laser on making sure that Americans know we are working for them."

Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) cited new poll numbers showing that 78 percent of Americans are worried that the recent economic gains are only temporary, and the country is at risk of slipping back into a recession anytime.

"It's almost like they're cancer survivors. They've gone through this trauma, and they need to know that it's going to be OK for a long time to come," Israel said. "We're going to be the party of sustained economic growth for everyone."

The campaign, in spirit, is not much of a departure from the Democrats' election message of past cycles, when party leaders sought to contrast their agenda from that of the Republicans by emphasizing proposals to hike the minimum wage, extend unemployment benefits, expand childcare benefits and overhaul the nation's immigration laws.

Those issues have polled well in the Democrats' favor, but public support hasn't translated into gains at the polls, where Democrats were trounced in 2010 and again in 2014. In 2012, they picked up seats but failed to win back the House majority.

Democratic leaders say they've taken a lesson from past failures and hope to apply them ahead of the 2016 elections.

"It's not that Democrats don't have a message, it's that we had too many," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) "The public didn't see the clarity and the focus of the message. 

"This will be more like what we did for 'Six in '06,' " Pelosi added, referring to the campaign pitch that helped propel the Democrats into the House majority eight years ago. "The clarity and the precision that we have to have to reach the American people is what is going to make the difference."

The Democrats will huddle for a series of meetings on Thursday, with President Obama slated to address the caucus during a dinner Thursday night.

The conference is scheduled to conclude Friday morning, following a speech from Vice President Biden.