Obama to Senate Democrats: Don’t Play it Safe, “We Still Have to Lead”

From Sunlen Miller:

President Obama called on Senate Democrats today to continue to lead, even after the loss last month in the Massachusetts race, and blasted Republicans for being obstructionist and partisan in the past year.

“All that's changed in the last two weeks is that our party's 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,” the president said at the Newseam in Washington, D.C. today, “We still have to lead.”

Obama told his fellow Democrats that for anyone searching for a lesson from Massachusetts, “I promise you the answer is not to do nothing.”

“I think the natural political instinct is to tread lightly, keep your head down and to play it safe,” Obama said cautioning against that mentality. The president said he had some fun last Friday appearing before House Republicans in Baltimore – but in fiercely partisan rhetoric said that the Republicans have not been as accepting of Democratic ideals as Democrats have from the other side.

“When I start hearing that we should accept Republican ideas, let's be clear: we have. What hasn't happened is the other side accepting our ideas,” Obama said, “I also made it clear that we'll call them out when -- when they say they want to work with us, and we extend a hand and get a fist in return.”

Pointing a finger at Republicans, the president said that in 2009 Democrats had to lead, even with “enormous procedural obstacles,” from the GOP which he said was unprecedented.

“You had to cast more votes to break filibusters last year than in the entire 1950s and '60s combined,” Obama said praising his party, “That’s 20 years of obstruction packed into just one. But you didn't let it stop you.”

The president issued a challenge to his Republican colleagues, “if you want to govern, then you can't just say no. It can't just be about scoring points.”

The president said he has “little patience” for political calculations that “say the cost of blocking everything is less than the cost of passing nothing,” and mentioned again the failed fiscal commission vote.

The president called on his party to move forward health care and financial regulatory reform.

“We’ve got to finish the job,” he said adding that their mission is far from accomplished – and if they move forward he said he is “confident that the politics of 2010 will take care of themselves.”

Question Time Like last week’s appearance before the House Republicans, the president took questions today in front of cameras. It should be noted that 7 of the 8 questioners were incumbents in tough reelection races in 2010. Many of the questions – like from Sen. Gillibrand from NY who asked about health care for 9/11 responders– were questions no doubt to play to their local constituents giving them a second look this year.

On health care the president admitted that he – and the Democratic party – has “paid a price” for not being as transparent as promised during the health care negotiations.

“The process looked painful and messy, but the innumerable hearings that were held did give an opportunity for the product to get refined, so that I think that the ultimate package, after potential negotiations between the House and the Senate, is better than when -- where we started,” Obama said, “On the other hand -- and I take some fault for this -- at the end of the process, when we were fighting through all these filibusters and trying to get it done quickly, so that we could pivot and start talking about other issues that were so important to the American people, some of that transparency got lost. I think we paid a price for it.”

Mr. Obama said they’ve got to “constantly have our cards out on the table,” and “not play an insider’s game. Play an outsider’s game.”

To do this – the president had a little news consumption advice for his colleagues.

“If everybody here turned off your CNN, your Fox, you know, 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 conversation focused on, how are we going to help people than a conversation about how is this going to help or hurt somebody politically. And that's part of what the American people are just sick of. “

The president said he himself if going to get out of that 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.”

Asked by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) if he could just establish an Executive Order to push though his proposal using $30 billion TARP funds for a small and community bank fund, the President said that he would prefer to do this legislatively as part of a jobs package.

“I do think it's better to do them through legislation than through executive order. TARP was a congressionally created structure with some fairly stringent guidelines, in terms of how we were supposed to approach it. It shouldn't be hard to do though. It's a pretty simple concept.”

Chairman of the Judicial Committee, Pat Leahy vented to the president about the blocking of judicial nominees and political appointees by Republicans.

The president admitted that while Democrats had been guilty of the same thing in the past, they were a little more “selective” than what Republicans are doing now.

“We've got a huge backlog of folks who are unanimously viewed as well qualified, nobody has a specific objection to them, but end up having a hold on them because of some completely unrelated piece of business.”

He specifically blasted the hold up of his General Services Administration (GSA) administrator nominee, Martha Johnson.

“Nobody can tell me that there's anything particularly wrong with her. They're blocking her because of some unrelated matter,” Obama said, “Don’t hold this -- this woman hostage. If you have an objection about my health-care policies, then let's debate the health-care policies. But don’t suddenly end up having a GSA administrator who is stuck in limbo somewhere because you don't like something else that we're doing.”

-Sunlen Miller

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