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Obama cautions freshman House Democrats about the price tag of liberal policies

Former president Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally for Illinois gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker in Chicago on Nov. 4, 2018. (Ashlee Rezin/AP)

Former president Barack Obama gently warned a group of freshman House Democrats Monday evening about the costs associated with some liberal ideas popular in their ranks, encouraging members to look at price tags, according to people in the room.

Obama didn’t name specific policies. And to be sure, he encouraged the lawmakers — about half-dozen of whom worked in his own administration — to continue to pursue “bold” ideas as they shaped legislation during their first year in the House.

But some people in the room took his words as a cautionary note about Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal, two liberal ideas popularized by a few of the more famous House freshmen, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

While the more liberal freshmen have garnered much of the attention in Washington, many first-year Democrats hail from swing- or even red districts and have struggled with how to respond to the emboldened far-left.

An ambitious platform seeking to combat climate change is being championed by progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.). (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post, Photo: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

“He said we [as Democrats] shouldn’t be afraid of big, bold ideas — but also need to think in the nitty-gritty about how those big, bold ideas will work and how you pay for them,” said one person summarizing the former president’s remarks. 

Obama’s words — rare advice from a leader who has shunned the spotlight since leaving office — come as the Democratic Party grapples with questions of how far left to lean in the run-up to 2020. Most Democratic candidates seeking the presidential nomination have embraced a single-payer health-care system and the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to make the U.S. economy energy efficient in a decade.

But some moderate Democrats worry a lurch left will upend their chances at ousting President Trump. Notably, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who helped organize Obama’s meeting with the freshmen, has not put those ideas on the floor for a House vote — nor does she plan to, senior Democrats close to her say.

People in the room, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the evening, said Obama’s cost warnings weren’t deficit-scolding, per se. Rather he argued that voters care about the costs associated with policies and that Democrats should be ready to answer questions about how they will pay for an idea while making big promises to constituents.

Obama gave the example of taxes: Even a liberal, he argued, could be repelled from supporting a liberal policy if it’s accompanied by a major tax cut to their own bottom line. 

Obama, these people said, made few if any remarks about Trump or the newly released conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Impeachment also never came up.

Rather, the evening was casual and friendly. Obama spoke about his own experience in Congress, however brief it was before his ascension to the White House. The former president — who had campaigned for a number of freshmen in the room — said he was proud of them for fighting for what they believed was right.

Obama also complimented Pelosi.

“The reason I love Nancy is because she combines a passion for doing what’s right for our country and our kids, along with a toughness that can’t be matched on the Hill,” Obama said.

Pelosi, notably, has focused Democrats’ legislative agenda on passing issues the lawmakers campaigned and won on in 2018, including legislation codifying protections for preexisting conditions and background checks for gun owners.

When the freshmen asked Obama about his approach to governing, Obama talked about the importance of constituent services and making voters feel seen and heard. He told them to work across the aisle but also warned against becoming trapped by “phony bipartisanship,” as one person described his remarks. 

“He was speaking to staying in touch with your constituents, . . . making sure you’re doing the regular communications as well as [recognizing] that there’s oftentime nuances to policymaking and that it takes time,” said Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.), who worked in the Obama administration. “He told stories about passing the ACA, and how that took a lot of conviction and, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and how that took a lot of time.”

Stevens did not get into additional specifics of the evening.

Obama at one point dinged Republicans for moving too far right, holding up the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) as an example of the traditional GOP before Trump re-branded the party. He spoke of turning out voters and how to push for progressive ideas while also hailing from a swing district.

Obama also gave the freshmen some advice: Find the policy you’re willing to lose your seat over and fight for it. The Affordable Care Act was that policy for him as well as a handful of Democrats who took the vote knowing it would cost them their seats.

They don’t regret that, he said, after millions of people got health insurance. Or, at least, he certainly didn’t.