House Democrats, Obama Retreat To Williamsburg

While the Senate was trying to come up with an agreement on an economic stimulus package, President Obama was meeting with Democratic House members who are holding a retreat in Williamsburg, Va. The president was there to push for passage of the stimulus.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Ever since taking office, President Obama has been urging lawmakers to act swiftly to pass an economic stimulus package. The House has acted, the Senate has not. And with the rhetoric from both Republicans and Democrats growing sharper, the president traveled last night to one very partisan event, to rally the troops.

In Williamsburg, Virginia, Mr. Obama spoke to a gathering of House Democrats. NPR's Don Gonyea was with him, and joined us to talk about it. Good morning.

DON GONYEA: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: The president spoke just as it became clear that the Senate would not reach a deal last night. How would you characterize his remarks?

GONYEA: This felt more like a pep rally, a pep rally for House Democrats. More like a campaign event than anything we've seen so far in this still relatively new presidency. And it really is a campaign. It's a campaign for a piece of legislation that the president says is absolutely critical to address the economic crisis.

He did seem last night - again, this was a House Democrats retreat, he was among friends - he seemed impatient. He said the economic stimulus bill is of the right size and the right scope, and that it balances tax cuts and spending. Give a listen to the president.

President BARACK OBAMA: We can't embrace the losing formula that says only tax cuts will work for every problem we face, that ignores critical challenges like our addiction to foreign oil, or the soaring cost of health care, or falling schools and crumbling bridges and roads and levees. I don't care whether you're driving a hybrid or an SUV, if you're headed for a cliff, you've got to change direction. That's what the American people called for in November, and that's what we intend to deliver.

GONYEA: No mistaking the implication there, that the economic policies of the last eight years were heading the country toward that cliff. And he said that the usual gamesmanship that defines Washington just won't work this time.

MONTAGNE: Don, the president is asking for bipartisanship, but now he's also -as we've just heard - directly challenging his Republican critics. Can he have it both ways?

GONYEA: Well, he's trying to have it both ways at this point. It's not quite like people are saying no more Mr. Nice Guy, out of the White House. And we have seen, during the first week, week-and-a-half, of this presidency, some real outreach to Republicans. A lot of very public overtures - trips to the Hill by the president to visit the Republican leadership and the Republican caucus. Republicans coming up to the White House, being part of a Super Bowl party at the White House.

And the president, at this point, shows no sign of dropping the charm in that regard. But again, we are hearing much tougher language, as he is defining just what he sees the Republicans who are criticizing this economic stimulus package as saying.

Democratic House members last night seemed to like the fact that he's really taking up the fight, and taking such a strong position defining the Republicans. Here's Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen last night. He spoke to NPR following the president's appearance.

Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (Democrat, Maryland): Bipartisanship does not mean you have to adopt the failed policies of the last eight years. He inherited a mess - huge debts, a country with huge job losses over the last months. He's reached out to the Republicans but bipartisanship does not mean saying yes to the policies that got us into this ditch in the first place.

GONYEA: So, the Democrats in the House, who, again, already passed this package, are telling him to stick to his guns. They like very much what they're hearing from the president.

MONTAGNE: Now, House Democrats have already passed the stimulus package. Why is the president reaching out to them at this moment?

GONYEA: Well, their work isn't done, for starters. A different bill - we saw what happened in the Senate last night - still no deal, still no vote yet. We know a different bill will come out of the Senate, and it will go to conference, and Democrats will have to vote again on a final bill.

But he's also talking to the American people. We may see a prime-time news conference from the president Monday night. We'll also likely see some travel -him taking it directly to the people.

MONTAGNE: Thanks, Don.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: NPR's White House correspondent, Don Gonyea.

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MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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