Obama pledges campaign for health-care bill and Democrats

President Obama, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), greets House Democrats at their retreat. He praised those who were willing to "make tough choices sometimes when they're unpopular."
President Obama, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), greets House Democrats at their retreat. He praised those who were willing to "make tough choices sometimes when they're unpopular." (Melina Mara/the Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010

With unemployment hovering in the double digits and House Democrats eager to move on to the politically crucial task of job creation, President Obama pledged Thursday to publicly champion the health-care legislation that in the past year has consumed much of their attention and often made them targets.

Speaking at the House Democrats' annual retreat, Obama sought to reassure the lawmakers as they enter a political climate that has already inspired some Democrats to retire rather than seek reelection in November. "I'll be out there waging a great campaign from one end of the country to the other, telling Americans with insurance or without what they stand to gain," he said in the visitor center in the Capitol.

Obama seemed to acknowledge the political realities of the legislation, which Congress is on the verge of passing. He praised lawmakers who were willing to "make tough choices sometimes when they're unpopular," and he singled out Reps. Baron P. Hill (Ind.) and Tom Perriello (Va.), who backed the health-care legislation even though their districts are conservative. Many Democrats who could face tough election races in November opposed the bill.

The three-day event, which will conclude Friday after a speech by former president Bill Clinton, is making clear that Democrats are eager to get beyond health care to start focusing on the economy. A group of business leaders, including Michael Todman, an executive at the appliance maker Whirlpool, and Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, spoke to lawmakers, along with labor leaders such as Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"Look, as important as health care is, and as front and center as it is in the Beltway, when I go home . . . they care about health care, but they're focused on jobs," said Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), a member of the House leadership who helped organize the retreat. "They know without a job, there's not an awful lot of hope of them getting health care."

Obama's appearance, which lasted more than a hour, came in an unusual setting for the start-of-the-year retreat: the Capitol. Seeking to portray themselves as hard at work rather than relaxing as millions of Americans remain unemployed, Democrats eschewed their usual three-day trip to Kingsmill Resort and Spa in Williamsburg in favor of an auditorium at the visitor center.

Nearly every element of the retreat reflected the considerably less optimistic place Democrats found themselves compared with last year. Back then, the biggest complaint among the Democrats was that Obama was spending too much time trying to negotiate with House Republicans on the stimulus bill.

A year later, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House's science committee, is among the members who have decided to retire instead of run for election in the face of what appears to be an anti-incumbent mood. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, argued in a detailed presentation Wednesday night that the Democrats' political situation is not like what they faced in 1994, when they lost the majority, in part because Republicans remain unpopular.

Lawmakers in the House are increasingly frustrated not only with Republicans but also with Democrats in the Senate, who they think have weakened the health-care bill and blocked or failed to act on a number of other initiatives.

"I think the caucus is sitting on the edge of our seats, and they are getting angrier by the moment because of the inaction of the Senate," said Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.).

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