President offers guidance to Democratic senators as they warily approach the midterm elections following Massachusetts vote that reshaped political dynamics in Washington.
WASHINGTON - In a blunt prescription for his skittish party, President Obama on Wednesday implored Democratic leaders to swing big, be honest with an angry public and expose any obstructionism by Republicans.
"We still have to lead," Obama told Democratic senators in a pep talk that unfolded on live TV.
That line alone revealed how much the political dynamic has changed in just two weeks, as Senate Democrats watched their majority slip from 60 to 59 in a special Massachusetts election that sent shudders through the party. That one vote cost them the muscle to overcome Republican stalling tactics, forcing Obama to adapt in hopes of salvaging this year and his agenda.
His advice: Get results and this year's midterm elections will work out fine. Let policy be our politics, Obama said, and make sure everyone knows about petty acts by the opposition.
Obama's mission is to stiffen the resolve of his party as he pursues his agenda to create jobs, overhaul health insurance and tighten regulations on Wall Street -- while casting that agenda in more personal, real-life terms.
So Obama went into detail in offering tactical guidance to a room full of senators with decades of election experience, including a handful who face difficult campaigns this year and who got most of the camera time with Obama.
The president said lawmakers should do more business in public, tell voters honestly that some problems will take a long time to solve, stop listening to cable TV shows that obsess about Washington's politics, make a case for health care reform without getting bogged down by insider minutia and call out Republicans when gamesmanship holds up votes.
'Why we're here'
Obama said he's still confident that voters will reelect leaders who do the right thing and explain it well.
There was no mention Wednesday of the many other factors, rightly or not, that drive elections, from personalities and negative ads to local issues to a sense of national drift.
"I hope we don't lose sight of why we're here," Obama said. "We've got to finish the job on health care. We've got to finish the job on financial regulatory reform. We've got to finish the job, even though it's hard."
Obama's new bipartisanship -- cooperative offers laced with criticism-- again was on display. When he recounted the expensive steps Democrats took to halt a deeper recession, he said, "We led." The suggestion was that Republicans did not.
The president said he meant it when he told House Republicans that he wants to work with them. Then he sharply added: "We'll call them out when they say they want to work with us and we extend a hand and get a fist in return."
Obama called on the senators to remember the ideals that propelled them to run for office in the first place.
"If anybody is searching for a lesson from Massachusetts, I promise you the answer is not to do nothing," Obama said. He later told senators to avoid their instinct in tough times to "tread lightly, keep your head down and to play it safe."
Echoes for Obama
The message was also about Obama himself. His comments had echoes of his own presidential campaign as he strives, in a series of recent appearances, to recharge his agenda and shore up his party in the face of potential election losses this year.
The party in power traditionally sustains midterm losses, and the public is in a particularly sour mood now.
Obama said Democrats must rise above ideology ("I just want to find out what works"), accept responsibility as they dish blame for deficits ("We have been complicit in some ways") and tell people hard truths ("You can have an adult conversation").
Obama's comments came as the White House announced he would start holding meetings next week with bipartisan congressional leaders, as he promised to do in his State of the Union address.