CAMBRIDGE, Md. — President Barack Obama rallied House Democrats for an election-year fight, urging them to work with Republicans if they show some willingness to put politics aside but telling the rank and file to call them out if they stand in the way.
Addressing Democrats on the final day of their three-day annual retreat, Obama outlined the political stakes over the next few months as congressional Democrats try to push his agenda in the face of Republican opposition, the GOP choses its nominee and signs of recovery in a fragile economy go a long way to determining his re-election chances and the party's fate.
Obama said Democrats should seize the opportunity "whenever there is a possibility that the other side is putting some politics aside for just a nanosecond in order to get something done for the American people, we've got to be right there ready to meet them," the president told the sometimes raucous crowd.
However, "where they obstruct, where they're unwilling to act, where they're more interested in party than they are in country, more interested in the next election than the next generation, then we've got to call them out on it," the president said. "We've got to push. We can't wait; we can't be held back."
Coming off a three-day tour to promote his State of the Union message, Obama promised a "robust debate about whose vision is more promising" when Republicans choose their nominee.
On a day when reports showed the economy picking up late in 2011 but still considered "fragile" by the White House, Obama told Democrats wondering about their re-election prospects: "It's going to be a tough election because a lot of people are still hurting out there and a lot of people have lost faith generally about the capacity of Washington to get anything done."
House Republicans, who held their retreat in Baltimore last week, have repeatedly said the election will be a referendum on Obama's policies, especially his handling of the economy.
The president acknowledged that Democrats have embraced parts of his agenda when it was politically difficult and in some cases costly. The party took a drubbing in the midterm elections, losing control of the House and seeing their ranks diminished in the Senate.
And despite some past clashes with House Democrats over his willingness to compromise with Republicans, Obama was warmly received and was introduced as "our champion" by Rep. John Larson of Connecticut.
The president returned the warmth with a vote of confidence that Democrats would win back the House in November, making a nod to their leader as "soon-to-be once-again Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi."
"I believe in you guys. You guys have had my back through some very tough times," said the president, who received a small gift – a DVD of House Democrats singing Rev. Al Green's "Let's Stay Together."
Last week, at a fundraiser at the Apollo Theater in New York, Obama stood on the stage and crooned a line from the Green classic.
Democrats were upbeat at their three-day session, energized by Obama's State of the Union address and its populist themes as well as recent polls showing more Americans say the country is on the right track and approve of Obama's handling of the economy. Divisions in the Republican ranks that were on full display last year in the fight over extending the payroll tax cut and the bitter battle between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich for the GOP presidential nomination also lifted Democratic spirits.
But the relationship with the White House hasn't always been cordial. Vice President Joe Biden, who addressed the Democrats prior to Obama's speech, described some of the rough patches.
He noted that several members in the room were mad at him in December 2010 after Obama negotiated an extension of President George W. Bush's tax cuts over the objections of some House Democrats. Last year, frustrated Democrats complained the Obama gave away too much in negotiating a spending bill and an agreement to raise the government's borrowing authority.
Biden said Pelosi told him at the last conference to "get tough. Enough is enough." He said the "message was heard. The message was heard. And I think we've delivered."
Biden said Democrats would reclaim the House and he would help candidates in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida. Those states also are critical to Obama's hopes of winning another term.
"We cannot succeed unless you all come back," Biden told House Democrats.
The vice president was more pointed in his political remarks than Obama and called out some Republicans by name. He said the American people will reject GOP unwillingness to compromise and its blatant determination to make Obama a one-term president.
Of the presidential candidates, Biden said Romney's criticism of the auto bailout and a host of positions stated by rival Newt Gingrich on government intervention will create a clear contrast for voters.
"These guys are helping us by saying what they believe," Biden said.