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House Democrats were licking their wounds after bruising midterm elections when they decamped to Cambridge, Md., last year for their annual retreat. This year, Members predict a better time on the Eastern Shore as they hone their message on jobs and the economy going into the 2012 elections.
"Democrats are more excited," Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.) said, referring to a new National Journal poll that gave the edge to Democrats when respondents were asked whom they would prefer to control the House. "I think from the Democratic point of view, our prospects are looking up. Not a bad way to begin the new year."
But the new year also marks historic lows for Congress' approval rating and a grim outlook for legislative productivity.
Despite those obstacles, Democrats plan to spend three days at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa & Marina participating in panels under the theme "Reignite the American Dream."
According to a draft of the agenda, the retreat is "intended to highlight those goals and help prepare members of the caucus to continue to fight to restore jobs to the millions left behind by the Great Recession."
The Democratic retreat comes one week after Republicans spent three days in Baltimore crafting their own playbook and setting out to avoid the kind of infighting that muddled their messaging last year.
The Democratic minority hasn't had the same messaging challenges, but Congressional Democrats had communication difficulties with the White House last year and the party is seeking to regain control of the House in the same election cycle that President Barack Obama is running largely by contrasting himself with an unpopular Congress. Obama did not attend the Democratic retreat last year, and Members said his appearance in Cambridge this year is an opportunity for the party to coalesce behind similar messages.
"I want to hear from him, I think, the same thing that I want to hear from him" in the State of the Union speech, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said during his weekly briefing with reporters Tuesday.
The Maryland Democrat said the president should touch on themes of bipartisanship to solve fiscal problems but that he should also drive home the oft-repeated line that high-income earners should pay more in taxes.
"Some American citizens will have to make an additional contribution, but we are in a position, luckily, where sacrifice is not going to be necessary," Hoyer said.
Obama is likely to discuss those themes when he speaks privately to the House Democratic Caucus on Friday. Vice President Joseph Biden will deliver his own remarks to the group that same day. Before those keynotes, discussions at the Democrats' retreat will lean heavily on core policy issues that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and others have been preaching since the end of last year, when campaign finance and economic fairness dominated Democratic messaging.
According to the draft agenda, Member-led panels in Cambridge include "Ladies First: A Conversation on Advancing Women's Issues in 2012," "Budget Priorities and Defense Spending," "Seniors Task Force" and financial, health care and tax issues, among others.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. will host a discussion on the "History of the Democratic Party: The Struggle for Rights," and Members will participate in numerous election-oriented discussions on messaging, polling and the use of new media.
SKDKnickerbocker Managing Director Anita Dunn and Media Talent 2.0 Inc. President Joel Silberman will also host media training sessions for Members on Thursday.
The Progressive Caucus held its own issues retreat in Baltimore last week, and the Blue Dog Coalition traveled to New York for a similar conference. But aides maintain that the divergent retreats do not signal disunity in the Caucus and that everyone is behind the effort to take back the majority in 2012. To that end, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) will offer their takes on the political landscape during a joint presentation today. Tonight's festivities are highlighted by an "American Voices Panel" that includes Paul Begala and the leaders of Democratic-leaning interest groups, while MSNBC host Ed Schultz will participate in a panel on Hoyer's "Make It in America" plan.
While Connolly said the panel discussions and presentations are helpful, the most valuable takeaway from an issues retreat might be to "let down our hair, relax a little bit and network," he said.
Rep. Jim Himes (Conn.) agreed, adding, "For somebody who's relatively new like me, to have a leisurely beer with someone I don't know in the Caucus, it's just great for building relationships."
John Stanton contributed to this report.
Correction: Jan. 25, 2012
The print version of this story misidentified who is hosting a discussion on the “History of the Democratic Party: The Struggle for Rights.”