WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sought to calm jittery Democrats Wednesday as they prepared to head home to face voters, assuring them they’re “on the right side of history” despite problems with the launch of his massive health care overhaul and an immigration fight with Republicans.
In back-to-back closed sessions with House and Senate Democrats, Obama delivered his broad message about economic prosperity and expanding the middle class. But in return he was confronted with questions from Democrats who are nervous about implementation of the health care law as they look ahead to town hall meetings during the August recess — and to midterm elections next year.
The meetings at the Capitol offered a rare chance for the party’s rank and file to press the president about budget talks with Republicans, the next chairman of the Federal Reserve and local jobs projects, as well as to appeal to him for help in next year’s campaigns. In a lighter moment, House Democrats presented Obama with a birthday cake. He turns 52 on Sunday.
The White House is seeking to keep up enthusiasm among Democrats following a rough start to Obama’s second term.
He has gained an agreement in the Senate to get at least some long-blocked nominees confirmed, and the Senate has passed its version of sweeping immigration legislation. But the immigration overhaul faces a deeply uncertain future in the Republican-led House, where many in the GOP oppose a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
Obama’s landmark health care law continues to baffle many Americans, and the administration failed to assuage the public when it abruptly announced this month that it would delay a major provision requiring employers to provide coverage due to concerns about complexity.
While major provisions of the overall bill kick in Jan. 1, uninsured people will be able to start shopping for health plans on Oct. 1, and some Democrats are wary about the system being ready. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire said that in her state there is not enough competition because only one company had entered into the health care exchange.
In response, Obama told House Democrats as they head back to their districts that they “are on the right side of these issues and the right side of history in terms of providing health care to Americans and to ultimately finding comprehensive immigration reform,” said Rep. Janice Hahn of California.
Said Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky: “I just think he was trying to bolster the courage of the group.”
Obama spoke at length about his administration’s roll-out plans for the health care exchanges, which could be critical to the health care law’s success or failure.
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats, said Obama told senators not to be defensive when discussing the law.
“Basically he said we have to remind people that a lot of good things are happening,” King told reporters after the senators-only meeting. King listed several of what he said are the law’s accomplishments, such as children being able to use their parent’s insurance policies until age 26 and reduced costs for drugs.
King also said there needs to be more emphasis on explaining what the health care law “really means” to Americans because of repeated attempts by House Republicans “to essentially sabotage it and frighten people.”
The sessions came just days before lawmakers leave the capital for a six-week recess and the prospect of facing constituents back home at town halls at a time when polls show Congress being held in low regard.
“We have a positive, forceful message, and the Republicans, all they can talk about is repealing Obamacare as if that is the answer to our prayers,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. “They’re just wrong.”
Durbin made clear that Democrats had no intention of allowing a repeat of the congressional recess in August 2010 when loud opposition to the Affordable Care Act powered the tea party and propelled the GOP takeover of the House in that year’s elections.
“We’re not going to leave a void here,” Durbin told reporters. “We’re going to fill this (recess) with our message, and we’re going to do it in a very forceful, positive way.”
In the Senate session, Obama declared that he would not negotiate with Republicans on raising the nation’s borrowing authority and risk a repeat of the August 2011 budget showdown that rattled financial markets.
“He also made clear that we need to sit down and work together on these issues and that there’s certain points that he will insist upon,” said Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough has been holding regular meetings on budget matters with a small group of Senate Republicans and was planning to do so again later Wednesday. Among the GOP lawmakers who meet with him are Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven and Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson.
During Obama’s meeting with House Democrats, the president was pressed by Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Colorado about his controversial consideration of former aide Lawrence Summers to run the Federal Reserve. Obama strongly defended Summers as a valuable economic adviser, though White House officials said his words should not be seen as an endorsement for the Fed post.
Summers, who served Obama in his first term as chairman of the National Economic Council, is an unpopular choice in some quarters on Capitol Hill. Liberals remain unhappy with Summers who pushed to deregulate financial markets when he served as Treasury secretary from 1999-2001, and women bristle over his comments questioning their abilities in math and science during his tenure as Harvard president.
“The president of course, as I would and others would, defended Larry’s tenure here at the White House and his service to the country and the president in extraordinarily trying financial and economic times,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Summers and Janet Yellen, the Fed’s current vice chair, are among the leading candidates to replace Ben Bernanke when he leaves the post. Obama also mentioned former Fed vice chair Donald Kohn as a possible candidate during his meeting with House Democrats.
The White House, seeking to lower expectations for an imminent announcement, has said Obama will not name a new Fed chair until the fall. However, Obama told Senate Democrats that he had already talked with some candidates.
Carney also disputed reports that the president was curt during his exchange with Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, who asked about a jobs program in his district. The White House spokesman, who did not personally attend the meeting, said that characterization of the meeting was “not my understanding at all.”
In a statement, Maloney said, “I am the youngest of five brothers - I’ve been in a headlock before and it’s all in good fun. I asked the president for a commitment to prioritize a local jobs project, and I got it. I appreciate the president’s responsiveness.”
Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois said Democrats asked the president for his assistance in next year’s midterm elections, traditionally a rough ride for the party controlling the White House.
Leaving the meeting, Obama said his message was about “jobs, middle class, growth.”
Associated Press writers Jim Abrams, Erica Werner, Richard Lardner and Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.