In a blunt election prescription for his own skittish party, President Barack 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 voting numbers 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 the Democratic president 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 told the senators, and make sure everyone knows about petty acts by the opposition.
Obama's mission is to stiffen the resolve of his own party as he pursues an agenda that is consistent — creating jobs, overhauling health insurance, regulating Wall Street — yet is also cast 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 got most of the camera time with Obama.
The president said lawmakers should do more business in the public eye; 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.
Obama said he's still confident the American people will re-elect leaders who do the right thing and explain it well. The 2010 agenda is be the topic Thursday when Obama meets with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at the White House.
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."
The election season could be hard for Democrats, too. The party in power traditionally sustains midterm losses, and the public is in a sour mood.
Obama's new bipartisanship — cooperative offers laced with criticism— 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 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."
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.
He 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").
Expect Obama to make the same case, emphasizing Democratic efforts on politically tough items, when he campaigns for candidates this year. The White House's thinking is that Democrats took the heat in 2009, but that when voters have choices on the ballot this year, Republicans will face consequences if they don't work with Obama on fixing problems.
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.
Yet as he spoke at the Senate Democrats' strategy session, there was a choreography designed to help one party: His.
Virtually all of the senators who got their hands on a microphone face steep re-election challenges this year, and their moment with the president allowed them to give voice to public dissatisfaction with the economy and Washington.
Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado: "This place looks broken to the American people."
Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana: "Why should the Democratic Party be trusted?"
Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas: "Are we willing as Democrats to also push back on our own party and look for that common ground that we need to work with Republicans?"
Obama called the senators by their first names and praised them for legislation they sent him last year. He acknowledged the health care fight got messy, the transparency disappeared, and "we paid a price for it."
Just keep pushing, he said.
"I know these are tough times to hold public office," he said. "I'm there in the arena with you."
Associated Press writers Charles Babington, Jennifer Loven, Erica Werner and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.
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