CAMBRIDGE, Md. -- President Obama made no attempt during a speech to House Democrats Friday to suggest that they will be able to retake majority control in this year's elections, a departure from similar remarks he made last year.
Obama appeared briefly as the closing speaker at a three-day House Democratic policy retreat held on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. A year ago at the same event, Obama predicted, "It won’t be smooth, it won’t be simple," but that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) "is going to be speaker again pretty soon."
This year, he used his speech only to wish Pelosi a happy Valentine's Day and credit her with keeping her caucus united in recent weeks, especially during Tuesday's vote to raise the nation's borrowing limit.
Only briefly did he hint at the difficulty facing Democrats in this year's midterms when he thanked Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for "doing an extraordinary job under very difficult circumstances."
Democrats need to win back 17 seats this November to retake the House, a daunting task amid historical data suggesting that as members of the same party as a president in his sixth year, they could lose dozens of seats. Throughout the week, Democratic leaders have said or done little to suggest that they're preparing to take back the House, preferring instead to focus on this week's debt limit vote and similar to attempts to raise the minimum wage, extend unemployment benefits and pass new immigration bills.
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the DCCC's finance chairman, said that any talk during the meetings about this year's elections "hasn’t been about cheerleading." He said later that the mood "is not pessimism -- just as it’s not optimism -- it’s not pessimism. It’s just cold-hard realism.”
On the debt limit vote, Obama told his party colleagues Friday that they exhibited "courage, unity and discipline" amid attempts by congressional Republicans to block a debt limit increase or attach unrelated provisions.
"The fact that we are no longer going to see, I believe, anybody try to hold our government hostage and threaten the full faith and credit of the United States of America in order to contract policy concession -- the fact that we were able to pass a clean debt limit -- is just one example of why, when you guys are unified, you guys stick together, the country is better off," he said.
And on the Affordable Care Act, Obama heralded new figures showing that the number of Americans enrolling for health-care coverage exceeded estimates for the first time last month. He credited Democrats for "hanging in there tough" and defending the law despite its troubled rollout.
"I think 10 years from now, five years from now we’re going to look back and say this was a monumental achievement that could not have happened without this caucus," he said.
Dozens of vulnerable Democratic incumbents -- many of whom skipped this week's closed-door meetings -- are distancing themselves from the new law by voting with Republicans for proposed changes designed to roll back taxes on medical devices or force the Obama administration more frequently disclose information on enrollment figures. And in recent weeks, as outside conservative groups have started airing TV attack ads against Democrats who voted for or support the law, at least one super PAC helping House Democratic candidates has started airing ads that cite the law's "disastrous" start.
Obama also urged Democrats to continue pushing to hold votes on immigration in the Republican-controlled House by suggesting that there are several Republicans "who genuinely want to see things done, but they’re worried and they’re scared about the political blowback."
"When it comes to immigration reform, we have to remind ourselves that there are people behind the statistics, that there are lives that are being impacted, that punting and putting things off for another year, another two years, another three years, it hurts people," he said. "It hurts our economy. It hurts families."
On immigration, House Democratic leaders announced Thursday that they will begin a push later this month to compile signatures to force a vote on a Democratic-backed immigration reform proposal. Leader said trying to build support for a "discharge petition" would pressure Republicans eager to work on the issue to take a stand.
Discharge petitions are a little-used and rarely successful procedural tactic designed to allow House lawmakers to gather majority support for legislation not supported by top leaders. House Republicans have said they will not allow votes on Democratic-sponsored immigration legislation, making it unlikely that Democrats will succeed with their attempts to force a vote.