President Barack Obama attacked Republicans as "obstructionists" Wednesday, telling a gathering of Democratic lawmakers that the party of no has resisted his policy proposals because they are trying to score political points during a hotly contested election season.
For two years, Obama said in response to a question from Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), who remarked that Washington "looks broken to the American people," the Republican Party has packed "20 years of obstruction" into one by trying to filibuster nearly every piece of legislation that has come up for a vote. Obama noted that Republicans have tried to filibuster more legislation in 2008 than in the "entire 1950s and '60s combined."
"If you want to govern, you can't just say no," Obama told lawmakers gathered at the Newseum for the Senate Democratic Policy Committee Issues Conference. "It can't be about just scoring points."
But the president also made some pointed statements directed squarely at Democrats, particularly conservative Democrats facing a tough re-election campaign this year who have hesitated or outright refused to back some of his initiatives for fear of being voted out of office.
"The American people are out of patience with business as usual," Obama said. "They're fed up with a Washington that has become so absorbed with who's up and who's down that we've lost sight of how they're doing. They want us to start worrying less about keeping our jobs and more about helping them keep their jobs."
In response to a question by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Indiana), who asked why "should the Democratic Party be trusted, and are we willing to make some of the tough decisions to actually head this country in a better direction?" in relation to the federal deficit, Obama said:
There's no doubt we lost trust. [But] I'll tell you why the Democratic Party should be trusted: because the last time this budget was balanced, it was under a Democratic president who made some very tough decisions, [a reference to President Bill Clinton.]
Obama blasted Republicans who said the $17 billion savings in the federal budget was "a pittance" and criticized the $20 billion in savings in the budget proposal unveiled Monday as not enough.
"You know, only in Washington is $17 billion a pittance," Obama said. "...You've got to chip away at this problem ... squeeze out $5 million here, $10 million here, make this program work a little bit better, over time it creates good habits, and it starts exercising the fiscal restraint muscles in ways that won't affect programming for people but will affect our bottom line."
Since his State of the Union address, Obama has revamped the populist image that propelled him into the White House a year ago. The return of the hope and change candidate lionized on the Shepard Fairey campaign posters can be traced to the stunning defeat Democrats suffered last month when relatively unknown Massachusetts State Sen. Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley for the US senate seat held by the late Edward Kennedy for four decades, ending the 60-vote filibuster proof majority Democrats held in the Senate.
Republicans said the loss of Kennedy's seat was not only a rejection of Obama's policies, but an example of what Democrats should expect come November's midterm elections. Democrats, clearly spooked, basically declared they would no longer be capable of carrying out the president's agenda without that crucial 60th vote.
Obama addressed those fears during his State of the Union speech, reminding Democrats "that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills."
He reiterated those remarks Wednesday and, going a step further, pointed out how pathetic Democrats appeared:
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. 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.
He also advised senators that if they wanted to avoid headlines like the one in The Village Voice they needed to turn off "CNN, your Fox, your - just turn off the TV - MSNBC, blogs - and just go talk to folks out there, instead of being in this echo chamber where the topic is constantly politics - the topic is politics.
"It is much more difficult to get a conversation focused on how are we going to help people than a conversation about how is this going to help or hurt somebody politically," Obama said, directing his response to Senator Bennet. "And that's part of what the American people are just sick of - because they don't care, frankly, about majority and minorities and process and this and that. They just want to know, are you delivering for me? And we've got to, I think, get out of the echo chamber. That was a mistake that I think I made last year, was just not getting out of here enough. And it's helpful when you do."
Obama is clearly heeding his own advice and trying to make up for those mistakes.
Last week, he appeared at the House Republican Conference in Baltimore to take questions from GOP lawmakers, an unprecedented move to be sure, and ended up calling out lawmakers for, among other things, characterizing his efforts to overhaul the health care industry as some sort of "Bolshevik plot."
"I'm not suggesting that we're going to agree on everything, whether it's on health care or energy or what have you, but if the way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys then don't have a lot of room to negotiate with me," Obama said. "You've given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you've been telling your constituents is, 'This guy's doing all kinds of crazy stuff that's going to destroy America.'"
So intense was the 90-minute question-and-answer session that Fox News cut the live feed when it became apparent to all who tuned in that, one-by-one, Obama was pummeling Republican lawmakers who used their allotted time to try and trip up the president or came at him with a fistful of false and misleading facts about everything from the economy to foreign policy. Perhaps, making up for the void left by Fox, MSNBC rebroadcast the Q&A session in its entirety last Saturday.
Though it made for good television, Obama's appearance at the Republican conference and his pep talk to Democrats Wednesday may not serve to rally his progressive base. For one thing, Obama acknowledged at last week's Republican conference that his health care plan is "pretty centrist," a major point of concern for many of his supporters who have insisted that the package include, at the very least, a public option to compete with private insurers, which the legislation in its current form doesn't contain.
And it may be hard for some to swallow the image of Obama the populist at a time when he is escalating the eight-year-old war in Afghanistan against the advice of his ambassador to the country, Karl Eikenberry, and has introduced the largest defense spending budget in history at $708 billion.
He addressed a question about the non-defense discretionary spending freeze he imposed and said "it would be irresponsible when we have two wars for me to impose that same kind of limitation, tie my hands not knowing what contingencies may be needed."
Returning to health care, he urged the senators to finish the job, despite the fierce opposition to the legislation.
Obama told the lawmakers that they "put extraordinary work last year into making serious changes that would not only reform the insurance industry, not only cover 30 million Americans, but would also bend the cost curve, and save a trillion dollars on our deficits, according to the Congressional Budget Office. There's a direct link between the work that you guys did on that and the reason that you got into public office in the first place."
He added, "We've got to finish the job on health care ...We've got to finish the job, even though it's hard."
And therein lies the problem. While Republicans deserve their fair share of blame for refusing to support the president's policies, so, too, have Democrats been less than willing to stand alongside Obama as he tries to move his agenda forward.
The most notable is Obama's plans to close Guantanamo Bay and transfer some of the detainees to a near empty supermax prison in Illinois. It was Democrats who refused to give the administration the money it requested last year to begin the process of shutting down Guantanamo and again refusing to earmark funds in a military spending bill last December that would have allowed the federal government to purchase the Illinois prison.
The $3.8 trillion budget Obama sent to Congress Monday includes a funding request to purchase the prison, but Democratic leaders have said they won't touch the issue until after the November elections because they fear they will be voted out of office if they support moving suspected terrorist detainees to US soil--an issue Republicans have used as a way of attacking the administration's national security policies.
Additionally, in recent weeks Democrats harshly criticized the Justice Department's decision last November to prosecute self-professed mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other al-Qaeda prisoners in a federal prison in New York City. The delayed reaction by Democrats is seen as politically motivated coupled with a fear that supporting the move will cost them votes this year.
On Tuesday, a group of bipartisan group of nine US senators introduced legislation to ban the Justice Department from prosecuting Mohammed and four other 9/11 conspirators in federal court and instead force them into controversial military tribunals.
Although that issue wasn't addressed directly, Obama was sympathetic to the senators. "I know these are tough times to hold public office," Obama said. "I'm there in the arena with you."