President Obama gave a lengthy pep talk to Senate Democrats on Wednesday, encouraging his former colleagues to continue pushing his agenda and “finish the job on health care,” despite losing their filibuster-proof majority last month.
In a frank discussion held at Washington’s Newseum, Mr. Obama urged Democrats not to get “ideologically bogged down” on issues such as foreign trade and financial regulation.
“Like it or not, we have to have a financial system that is healthy and functioning, so we can’t be demonizing every bank out there,” Mr. Obama told the wide-ranging caucus of liberals and moderates. “We’ve got to be the party of business… . We’ve got to be in favor of competition and exports and trade.”
The president praised Democrats for several items they passed last year, including a bill addressing gender wage gaps, the stimulus package and a “credit-card holder’s bill of rights.” He told lawmakers to work to find common ground with Republicans — a requirement now that they lost the all-important 60-vote majority upon Republican Sen.-elect Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts — but at the same time bemoaned the minority party for being obstructionists, citing a historically high number of procedural votes that Senate Republicans have forced the chamber to take.
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“We have got to finish the job on health care; we have got to finish the job on financial regulatory reform,” he said. “I’m absolutely confident that if we do so in an open way, in a transparent way, in a spirit that says to our political opponents that we welcome their ideas — we are open to compromise — but what we’re not willing to do is to give up on the basic notion that this government can be responsive to ordinary people and help give them a hand up so they can achieve their American dreams. We will not give up that ideal.”
Mr. Obama acknowledged Mr. Brown’s upset victory in a historically blue state but said conclusions that it undermines the Democratic agenda are overblown.
“If anybody in this room is looking for a lesson from Massachusetts, I promise you the answer is not to do nothing,” he said.
On the deficit, which his administration has been addressing this week with its second annual budget, Mr. Obama notes that Democrats have been “complicit” in some of the big spending over the past decade. He cited the Medicare prescription drug plan, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and tax cuts that were not paid for under former President George W. Bush. But he said initiatives such as “pay-go” legislation and a proposed spending freeze on nondefense discretionary spending show his administration is serious on tackling the problem.
“I think the way that we regain trust is to pursue good policies, but not be afraid also to explain these policies and be honest with the American people that we’re not going to dig ourselves out of this hole overnight,” he said, pledging to pay for all spending that occurs on his watch. “One of the dangers that we have is, you have to chip away at this problem so every dollar counts.”
Stressing that Democrats will benefit from conducting government business as openly as possible, Mr. Obama said he took “some fault” for the messy endgame of congressional negotiations over the health-care-overhaul bills.
“Some of that transparency got lost, and I think we paid a price for it,” he said.
Following the speech, which was broadcast on television, Mr. Obama took several questions from the friendly crowd, many of which came from troubled incumbents facing tough re-election fights, including Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Mr. Obama encouraged the lawmakers, the majority of whom he served with as a senator from Illinois in 2005-08, to turn off their TV sets as a way of avoiding the political spin on what happens in Washington.
“I know these are tough times to hold public office,” he said, citing the tough economy and the bitter debate over health care. “In that kind of circumstance, I think the natural political instinct is to tread lightly, to keep your head down and play it safe… . To me, it is constantly important to remind myself why I got into this business in the first place.”