WASHINGTON – Facing criticism from House Democrats, President Barack Obama promised their leaders Wednesday night that he'll actively support their agenda and Democratic lawmakers as they head into tough midterm elections this fall, according to a congressional leadership aide.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer were among those in the Oval Office meeting. The aide, who was briefed on the meeting, spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversation was private.
The meeting came as congressional Democrats, fearing disaster in the fall elections, have expressed frustration with the Obama team and its efforts to help Democrats. They also were angered when White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said over the weekend that enough seats were in play for Democrats to lose the House.
Obama was told of the concerns of rank-and-file lawmakers, some of whom think the president hasn't been doing enough to use his bully pulpit on their behalf, considering that they are all up for re-election in November, the aide said. Obama won't face voters again until 2012.
Obama said that he understood the criticism and promised full engagement and support on substance and message through the fall, the aide said. With high unemployment dragging down incumbents, a key focus will be on jobs and how individual congressional districts are helped by Democrats' policies.
Pelosi told reporters it had been a "very productive meeting" and said that Gibbs' comment about Democrats possibly losing the House never came up.
Pelosi had lashed out at Gibbs over the remark Tuesday in a closed meeting with rank-and-file members. Earlier Wednesday, Gibbs defended himself, but he hastened to add that he believes Democrats will hang onto the House.
"I don't think I said anything that was politically shocking," Gibbs said during his daily briefing with reporters.
Also Wednesday, the White House circulated a memo detailing all the political help Obama and administration officials have given to the party's candidates. The White House portrayed the memo as a regular update of its political operation, but the timing suggested otherwise.
The memo describes how Obama and his team are working with candidates ahead of this year's midterm elections. The White House plans to dispatch Obama across the country at least once a week between now and Nov. 2.
So far, Obama has appeared at 32 political events during his presidency and attended hundreds more in swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.
"The president, vice president, first lady, Cabinet officers and senior staff have participated in 187 political events in the last 18 months, all with the intention of directly supporting candidates on the ballot in 2010 or building up the infrastructure of party committees," according to the memo provided by a Democratic official. "(Forty) more events are currently or tentatively scheduled and dozens more will be organized in the next few months."
Congressional Democrats have pushed Obama's circle to do more. Many fret that the White House is ineffective in using the heft of the presidency to help elect Democrats to statehouses, the House and Senate. In private, several Democrats said they worry Obama's team is more focused on its own 2012 re-election bid than the midterm elections that would shape the final two years of the president's first term.
Confidence in the White House political operation was shaken after Democrats lost the Massachusetts Senate seat in January, and governorships in New Jersey and Virginia last year. With Obama's popularity waning and voters frustrated with Democratic control of the White House and Congress, political aides have braced for a brutal election season.
Hoping to stem losses, Obama's inner circle reviewed their schedules and have escalated their political travel. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has appeared at fundraisers for candidates such as Reps. Baron Hill of Indiana and Tim Bishop of New York. Emanuel's deputy, Jim Messina, spoke at a fundraiser for Senate hopeful Alexi Giannoulias in Illinois. And Education Secretary Arne Duncan has campaigned for Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat who faces a tough primary challenge.