Speaking for about 20 minutes, Obama received strong applause for victory-lapping several accomplishments of the previous year: fighting for "equal pay for equal work" (Lily Ledbetter Act), expanding healthcare insurance to cover "four million more children"; the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor; and pushing to allow gays to serve in the military. (Full remarks not yet posted to White House website, but I'll try to update later once they are; the president did hit similar themes earlier during the Winter meetings at this fundraising dinner and fundraising reception.)
His biggest applause line, however, was not for an accomplishment but the promise to to continue fighting for his endangered healthcare reform plan. "Just in case there's any confusion out there, let me be clear: I'm not going to walk away from healthcare reform."
Obama continued to hit themes he's been stressing since the Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts and during his recent State of the Union speech: his administration inherited a lot of pre-existing problems; change will be tough to come by, especially with special interests blocking reform; doing the right thing isn't always popular. "So if you look at a tally of the things we said we would do –- even in the midst of this extraordinarily challenging economy –- we’ve kept our promises," he said. "We’ve kept our commitments.".
He tried to calm the implicit worries many Democrats in the room no doubt harbor about the political situation facing the party:
I was talking to Michelle the other day–-Michelle is always a good barometer–-and, you know, the front page was, oh, what’s Obama going to do to get his poll numbers up, and, are the Democrats all in a tizzy and this and that. And she said, you know, listen, if you're the average family, if I'm a mom out there and I'm working and my husband is working but we’re worried about losing our jobs, our hours have been cut back, the cost of our health care premium just went up 30 percent, the credit card company just jacked up our interest rates 39 percent, and our home value has gone down by $100,000, our 401(k) is all banged up –- and suddenly somebody calls up and says, "So, how do you think President Obama is doing right now?" What are they going to say? What are they going to say?He talked about how rough things are for many Americans and what needs to be done to reverse the political and economic situation, saying this:
"But here's what everybody here has to remember: That's why I ran for President. That's why you worked so hard to elect a Democratic Congress. We knew this stuff was tough. But we stepped up because we decided we were going to take the responsibility of changing it. And it may not be easy, but change is coming."
In explaining the slow pace of change and promising it's eventual arrival, Obama took some thinly-veiled shots across the partisan divide, too.
"Some of the steps we took were done without the help of the other party, which made a political decision all too often to jump in the backseat, let us do the driving and then critique whether we were taking the right turns," Obama said. "He also said people in Washington needed to worry "less about scoring political points and more about solving problems," and acknowledged that "sometimes we may be working against the prevailing winds--even a blizzard."
But the main theme was, to borrow a phrase from his predecessor, "stay the course." "I know we went through a tough year," said Obama. "But we've gone through tougher years," and proceeded to invoke Jefferson, FDR, John and Teddy Kennedy in a finishing flourish that brought DNC members to their feet.
It's clear that the White House's has changed its tone and posture in the weeks since Brown's victory. The president is more aggressive about pointing to administration successes. There's a bit more finger-pointing and blaming of Republican obstructionism. There have been greater calls for bipartisanship and more promises to listen, but also a more aggressive interface with the minority opposition, such as Obama's visit to the House GOP last week. (With an whiff of triumph, the president also mentioned that visit during his DNC speech.) And, finally, there is a "fired up, ready to press forward" tenor to allay the fears of nervous fellow Democrats.