President Barack Obama promised congressional Democrats behind closed doors Wednesday that he will fight to help retake the House of Representatives in 2014 and urged them to close ranks with the White House to defend Obamacare, congressional aides said.
"No one is more mindful than me for the need for Nancy Pelosi to be speaker again," a Democratic leadership aide quoted Obama as telling House Democrats during the private meeting.
Obama, rallying his troops ahead of lawmakers’ five-week August recess, also vowed not to bow to Republican demands to tie government spending to any increase in the country’s legal power to borrow.
"The president made it very clear that while he was prepared to work with our Republican colleagues, he was not prepared to put at risk the credit of the United States of America," Democratic House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters after the meeting.
And he defended former senior adviser Larry Summers to both House and Senate Democrats — but did not indicate whether he would nominate the ex-president of Harvard to be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve, several lawmakers said. Senior presidential adviser Dan Pfeiffer told reporters that Obama would not announce his Fed pick until the fall.
Before the meetings, White House aides portrayed the effort as a way to get congressional Democrats singing from the same hymnal on issues ranging from the economy to Obamacare before lawmakers face voters in their districts during the recess.
"Our members are ready to go out in August and talk to their constituents. We are asking them please, to go out and talk to Americans," Rep. Xavier Becerra, the Democratic Caucus Chairman, told reporters.
Rep. Steve Israel of New York told reporters that "one of the things the president said was that if it means anything to be a Democrat, it's fighting for folks who aren't looking to appear on 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.'"
House Democrats asked no questions about the headline-dominating National Security Agency spy scandal, officials said.
The economy loomed especially large over the discussions: Obama recently launched a series of speeches on a wide range of related topics, such as fighting poverty, creating jobs and making college more affordable. And he got a boost on Wednesday from news that the fitful recovery added 200,000 jobs this month, a healthy figure.
Speaking to reporters after the discussion, Democratic House Minority Leader Pelosi said Obama had delivered “a masterful presentation ... on the subject of jobs and the future."
When asked about Obama's comments about Summers, whose possible nomination has run headlong into fierce liberal opposition, Pelosi replied: "He did make — I don't want to say a defense — but he spoke about what he thought about Larry Summers."
But Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia said that Obama "gave a full-throated defense of Larry Summers and his record." Still, the president told lawmakers "he was not even close to a decision," the lawmaker said.
The unusual but spontaneous defense of Summers came during the question-and-answer session after Rep. Earl Perlmutter of Colorado said "Larry Summers. Bad choice," two sources told Yahoo News.
Later, Obama raised the issue of the Federal Reserve chairmanship to Senate Democrats without being prompted, assuring them that he had "interviewed a good number of candidates" and would pick a solid candidate with the stature to reassure the markets, according to a Democratic senator who was in the room.
Democratic sources said the president sounded frustrated (but not angry) with the explosion of angry speculation about Summers even before any nomination has been announced. One linked Obama's annoyance to the confrontations that forced Susan Rice to withdraw her name from consideration as secretary of state and gave Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel such a rough road to confirmation.
Looking ahead to scheduled crises over government spending, Obama told House Democrats “I am not negotiating around the debt ceiling,” according to a Democratic leadership aide.
Obama was referring to a vote this fall on whether to raise the government’s ability to borrow to pay for existing government programs. Republican House Speaker John Boehner has suggested that can happen only in return for fresh spending cuts.
A similar standoff in the summer of 2011 spooked international markets and ultimately led to the downgrade of America’s top-notch credit rating. There have been relatively few aftereffects in part because investors still see no real substitute for U.S. Treasury bills. The crisis also led to a bipartisan bill making sharp cuts to government spending.
In addition to the upcoming spending fights, Obama touched on issues such as efforts to overhaul the nation’s immigration policies, implementation of Obamacare and the failed push to enact new curbs on guns in the aftermath of the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., the leadership aide said.
On Obamacare, the president discussed “White House and House Democrat coordination on implementation and messaging,” including a planned meeting this week between Democratic House freshmen and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, as requested by Pelosi, the aide said.
Pelosi presented Obama, who turns 52 on Aug. 4, with a dark chocolate birthday cake featuring the presidential seal and the message "Happy Birthday, Mr. President." She jokingly declared that “Secret Service said ‘no candles,’” and Rep. Joe Crowley of New York led the singing of Happy Birthday.