When President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of Congress about his jobs agenda today, Democrats hope it will also renew a relationship between the White House and a Democratic caucus that has felt largely ignored by an administration worried about its own re-election.
Over the past several weeks, leadership in both the House and Senate have pushed Obama and his team not only to coordinate more with his fellow Democrats but to stand with them in their efforts to attack Republicans for opposing their policy ideas.
“They tend to hold the details fairly close,” one Senate Democratic leadership aide said. And while that might be understandable to avoid leaks, “at the same time, we’re your friends on this and we ought to be singing from the same hymnal,” the aide added.
And while the White House has made some attempts at responding to Democratic concerns, Democrats remain skeptical.
“I think that’s the hope, but it remains to be seen,” the Senate aide said.
“Folks hope that they realize that more engagement and coordination is needed,” the aide added.
Still, there have been indications that changes are on the way, Democrats said. Obama made a series of personal calls to Democratic leaders Tuesday and Wednesday, and senior administration officials were reaching out to ranking members in the House and chairmen in the Senate.
According to aides, while neither Obama nor his team were giving out details on the speech, the White House was asking Members what they would like to hear, and it appeared last-minute tweaks were being made to reflect those discussions.
The White House this week also indicated that it would present actual legislation to Congress — something the Obama administration has rarely done and which will give Democrats something to rally around.
The White House agenda is also likely to track closely with the agendas of House and Senate Democrats.
Senate Democrats, for instance, had planned to bring a highway construction measure to the floor this fall, as well as legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration and the expiring payroll tax cut. And while that schedule might be tweaked to add a teacher pay bill or other proposals from the speech, Obama’s plan “matches pretty closely to the things we’re looking at,” the Senate aide said.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) agreed, saying Wednesday that “we have focused on our ‘Make It In America’ agenda [and] it’s my expectation the president will be mentioning the phrase ‘Make It In America’ tomorrow.”
The renewed focus on jobs will suit House Democrats, who since late spring have been arguing that Republicans’ focus on fiscal austerity has come at the expense of addressing the unemployment rate.
“I’m glad the White House is finally engaged on this. … This is something we could put Republicans on the defensive over,” one House Democratic aide said.
There was also Obama’s Labor Day speech in Detroit, during which the president took aim at Republicans.
“We’re going to see if Congressional Republicans will put country before party. We’ll give them a plan, and then we’ll say, ‘Do you want to create jobs? Then put our construction workers back to work rebuilding America. ... You say you’re the party of tax cuts? Well then, prove you’ll fight just as hard for tax cuts for middle-class families as you do for oil companies and the most affluent Americans,’” Obama said to applause, adding, “Show us what you got.”
That tone was what Democrats have been asking the White House for over the past several weeks, aides said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the speech “tremendous,” while its tenor pleased numerous House Democrats who have chafed at Obama’s penchant for avoiding bare-knuckle politics.
“He hit Republicans directly, which a lot of Members wanted to see,” a senior House Democratic aide said.
Democratic officials familiar with Obama’s speech made it clear on Wednesday that while Obama would use the address to make the case for the urgency of addressing joblessness and the economy, he would draw lines between himself and Republicans, albeit in a more nuanced way.
Obama will stress past bipartisan support for the proposals that he will lay out. He will also insist that deficit reduction and investment in infrastructure and other programs do not have to be mutually exclusive and will make a clear play to demonstrate his willingness to compromise.
Although a direct attack on Congressional Republicans during today’s speech is unlikely, Democrats hope the president will find ways to remain aggressive in his rhetoric while still avoiding looking too partisan.
Nevertheless, skepticism remains.
“We’ve seen flashes, but nothing sustained,” a senior Senate Democratic aide said Wednesday, explaining that the White House has largely avoided partisan rhetoric because it “turns off independents.”
Jessica Brady and David M. Drucker contributed to this report.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.