President Barack Obama is trying to cheer up House Democrats, urging them to keep battling for middle-class families even as they trumpet brighter news about jobs, energy production and other economic milestones.
In that spirit, the lawmakers who saw their numbers shrink in November's elections vowed to get better at explaining their vision to voters. They need better messaging, not changes in policy, to win elections again, the Democrats said Thursday as they huddled in Philadelphia to talk strategy.
It might be wishful thinking, of course. Even Obama jokingly warned how hard it will be to overcome the Republicans' 58-seat House majority in next year's elections.
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He said youthful, dark-haired Rep. Ben Lujan of New Mexico -- newly named to head their 2016 House campaigns -- will end up with "hair like Steve Israel." Israel, a New York congressman who preceded Lujan, is fully gray.
Israel's new role is to oversee messaging for House Democrats. He told reporters his colleagues will stick to the party's well-known priorities: a higher minimum wage, tax increases on the rich, and advancing the president's health care law and other measures largely associated with Obama.
This time, they're counting on Obama's rising popularity -- and fading headlines on Ebola and terrorist beheadings -- to help persuade voters they'd be better off with a Democratic-run Congress.
In his evening speech, the president vowed to pitch in.
"'m not giving up the last two years, standing on the sideline," Obama said, to a standing ovation. "There is no economic measure by which we are not better off," he said, adding that Democrats must tell that story.
Earlier, Israel said House Democrats are "absolutely unified on three essential messages going forward. And it's middle class, middle class and middle class."
Israel acknowledged that Democrats talked a lot about the middle class in last fall's elections. But world calamities distracted voters, he said, and Democrats failed to show that their economic policies would directly benefit working-class families.
Riffing on a campaign line from presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992, Israel said the Democrats' new theme will be, "It's MY economy, stupid."
Republicans scoff at Democrats' talk of better messaging. "Updating the packaging doesn't help if the product is still lousy," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Republicans say huge numbers of Americans dislike the president's signature health care overhaul. Israel, by contrast, says only the "tea party base" strongly opposes it.
In a sense, both are right, which is why skillful framing and messaging are crucial to campaigns. Polls show that many Americans like key details of the health law, such as guaranteed insurance for people with pre-existing medical problems. The law's overall image is less popular, however, especially when it's portrayed as a big-government mandate.
Seeking new ideas, dozens of House Democrats filled out a "messaging survey" on key points to stress. Israel displayed the resulting word cloud. The phrases cited most often were "middle class," "'paycheck growth" and "jobs."
Democrats groused about Obama's poor approval ratings last November, and most in tight elections kept him away. Now that jobs, the stock market and the president's popularity are rising, however, they're more content to acknowledge their ties to him.
"He's our messenger in chief," Israel said.
Some friction is inevitable, however, especially on trade. Obama wants authority to negotiate trade deals with minimal congressional interference, while many House Democrats oppose new trade pacts.
A Democratic official said Obama told the lawmakers he'll give them more information about the specifics in the trade deals he's negotiating overseas. The official, who wasn't authorized to discuss a private meeting and requested anonymity, said Obama told Democrats that previous trade deals haven't been perfect but these new ones will improve the status quo.
The president also told lawmakers the U.S. can't afford to let China set rules for global trade, the official said.