US & World

Obama Tells Democrats: 'We Still Have To Lead'

If President Obama confronted his political enemies, House Republicans, last Friday, it was time for his frenemies Wednesday, when he met with Senate Democrats. He urged the group of friends — and foes — to rally their resolve to finish his agenda, even after the loss of their filibuster-proof majority.

When President Obama reached out to Senate Democrats on Wednesday, a week after meeting with Republicans, his mission was to buck up their spirits.

Obama gave this group of friends, foes — and some who are in between — a pep talk in an attempt to rally them around his ambitious agenda, even after the loss of their filibuster-proof majority.

No group of Democrats suffered the defeat in the Massachusetts special Senate election more acutely than the Senate Democrats themselves. They lost their already shaky protection against a disciplined Republican opposition.

"All that's changed in the last two weeks is that our party has gone from having the largest Senate majority in a generation to the second-largest Senate majority in a generation," Obama said. "And we've got to remember that. There was apparently a headline after the Massachusetts election — the Village Voice announced that, 'Republicans win a 41-59 majority.' It's worth thinking about. We still have to lead."

'Remember Why You Are Democrats'

Last week's exchange between Obama and the House Republicans made for riveting television, as Obama and the GOP laid out their opposing views.

The exchange Wednesday with his own party felt entirely staged, as a parade of Democrats in danger of losing their seats were given a chance to question the president.

Of the eight Democrats who stepped to the microphone, six were in tough races: Sens. Arlen Specter (D-PA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Evan Bayh (D-IN), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and Michael Bennet (D-CO).

"This place looks broken to the American people," Bennet said. "Our ability to make these decisions is open to enormous question in the wake of the health care discussion: What do we need to do differently as Democrats and Republicans to fix this institution?"

Obama's advice for Republicans was simple. He's been giving it since the State of the Union: Oppose me on principle, but not just to stop me for the sake of political advantage.

Then he asked his own party to remember why they were Democrats in the first place. He asked them to practice conviction politics, not survival politics. We have to finish the job on financial regulation and health care, even though it's hard, Obama said.

"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," Obama said. "If that's where we go, I'm confident that politics in 2010 will take care of themselves."

Enemies Vs. Frenemies

If Obama was confronting his political enemies last Friday, he was confronting his political frenemies Wednesday. Even with a filibuster-proof 60 votes, the Senate Democrats were unable — after an entire year — to enact their president's No. 1 priority: health care.

That is one of the reasons voters are so frustrated with the president and his party.

With the Republicans unified in opposition, the controversial parliamentary maneuver in the Senate called reconciliation may be the only way Democrats can pass legislation, says former Clinton White House aide Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Reconciliation takes 51 votes instead of 60.

"I think the Democrats have to use reconciliation for a different purpose," Galston says. "Namely, they have to show the country that they are capable of governing. Right now, the country is wondering what the point of a Democratic majority is if it can't do anything. Even when people disagree with you, they will respect you if you display some consistency, strength, firmness of purpose — if you give off vibes that you really believe in what you're saying."

That's the argument Obama was trying to get his party to embrace, but he didn't say exactly how he and the Democrats plan to get the votes to go forward.

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