— When House Democrats last huddled at a sprawling bayside resort here on the Eastern Shore one year ago, lawmakers were publicly optimistic — but privately divided.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.). (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

They’d also just emerged from a lame-duck session of Congress during which long-simmering tensions between President Obama and liberal Democrats had reached their boiling point, as scores of members were in open revolt against the president over the tax-cut deal his administration had struck with congressional GOP leaders.

And they were struggling to hammer out a strategy for the next two years as the minority party in a GOP-led House that had received a resounding mandate from voters to push for big changes in Congress’ handling of the debt and economy.

Now, a year later, Democrats are still bullish about their chances of winning the 25 seats necessary to re-take the House — but relations both within their party and with the White House largely appear to have thawed.

And it’s Republicans, by contrast, who are working to maintain unity, after a payroll tax debate that revealed deep divisions both within their party in the House as well as between Republican leaders in the two chambers.

This is the changed landscape against which today’s visit by Obama and Vice President Biden to the annual House Democratic retreat will play out.

After two days of closed-door brainstorming sessions, briefings and panels featuring speakers including MSNBC’s Ed Schultz and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, the Democrats’ three-day “Reigniting the American Dream” conference at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay will conclude today with a 10:30 a.m. speech by Biden and a 1:15 p.m. address by Obama.

Unlike last year’s meeting, this year’s retreat takes place days after the president’s combative State of the Union address — so lawmakers already have a sense of Obama’s likely message to his party.

On the eve of the visit by the president and vice president, Democrats pointed to a new poll as a sign that they have reclaimed the momentum heading into 2012.

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey shows that 47 percent of registered voters prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress, while 41 percent prefer a Republican-led Congress. That’s a shift from June, when registered voters were evenly split between the two, 44 percent to 44 percent. The survey had a margin of error of 4.7 percentage points.

A broader look at recent polling might give the Democrats reason to curb their enthusiasm, however, as the approval ratings of both Obama and congressional Democrats have taken a nose-dive over the past year.

When House Democrats last gathered here in January 2011, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Obama’s approval rating at 54 percent; now, only 48 percent approve of the job he is doing.

Around this time last year, congressional Democrats were at about 36 percent approval in the Post/ABC News poll; since then, they’ve ticked down to 33 percent approval.

House Republicans — who huddled last weekend in Baltimore to strategize on their party’s way forward — have emphasized that they intend to make the November 2012 election first and foremost as a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy.

That means that Obama’s 48-percent approval rating will loom large over the coming battle.

The silver lining for Democrats? Congressional Republicans’ approval rating has plummeted even farther than either Obama’s or the Democrats’ has. In October 2010, 30 percent of respondents in the Post/ABC News poll approved of congressional Republicans. In April 2011, that number had risen to 34 percent. Now, it stands at 21 percent — a 13-point drop over the past nine months.