President Barack Obama urged House Democrats gathered in Baltimore on Thursday to approach this election year confident in their chances for success, and vowed to use the waning days of his presidency to cement their legacy as well as his own.
In a subtle reference to the increasingly lively Democratic primary underway to choose his party's nominee, Obama dismissed what he described as attempts by the news media to accentuate divisions within the party, and he broadly criticized the Republican field as "cynical" and presenting the nation as being in decline.
"I'm not worried about this party staying united," the president told the lawmakers during remarks that lasted about 20 minutes. "Democrats will win in November."
House Democrats are meeting at the Hyatt Regency in the Inner Harbor for their annual retreat, which lawmakers use to develop a legislative agenda for the year. The gatherings, which often take place in Maryland, are closed to the public.
The effort to craft a message is complicated this year by a presidential election that is likely to stall progress even on issues that have attracted bipartisan support in the past, such as an overhaul of the nation's byzantine tax code and criminal justice reform.
The race has proven uncomfortable for some establishment Democrats, many of whom lined up early to support former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Polls now show Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in a tight race with Clinton in Iowa, which will hold its caucuses on Monday. Sanders is leading Clinton in New Hampshire.
That political dynamic is further muddied by the fact that this is Obama’s final year in the White House, a time when presidents often work to cement their legacies even if that means breaking with factions of their own party to do so. Obama, for instance, is pressing Congress to approve an Asian trade agreement this year that is unpopular with labor unions and many Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Obama said Thursday he would spend the rest of his presidency cementing the lawmakers’ legacy, and not just his own.
"During this election season there’s a lot of noise and a lot of talk about America in decline," Obama said. "I don't believe it, and the facts don't show it. We’re doing a lot better than we were seven or eight years ago."
Both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke to lawmakers earlier Thursday, urged Democrats to tout the administration’s accomplishments as they run for reelection this year, including an improved economy and a health care plan that has provided coverage to millions of Americans who did not previously have it.
"The best way to win is to run on what we've done, and what we stand for and run on what more we are trying to do," Biden told the same group. "And then contrast that to what they are for and what they oppose."
Biden, at one point, was even more direct, likening the Republican presidential race to a "gift from the Lord" for Democrats. Biden joked that he didn’t know which Republican to root for, though he didn’t refer to any by name.
Many GOP leaders are worried that front-runner Donald Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — both of whom have touted their anti-establishment backgrounds — could be a drag on other Republicans on the ballot in a general election.
But the White House message may be hard for Democrats to hear given that the administration’s achievements have done little to break the Republican grasp on majorities in Congress. After seven years of Obama the number of Democrats in the House has shrunk to 188, the smallest number since the late 1940s. And despite what has the potential to be a lively and competitive presidential election, few independent analysts give Democrats a chance to reclaim a majority in the House.
The prospects are better in the Senate, where Democrats need to gain four seats if the party holds the White House. Republicans have more seats to defend, 24 to Democrats’ 10, and many of those GOP seats are in states Obama won, including Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Major highways, including I-95 and I-395, were briefly closed around Baltimore around 6 p.m. as the president’s motorcade worked its way into the city.
Congressional caucuses frequently hold their retreat in Maryland, often in Baltimore or in Cambridge. This year, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said, there was special meaning in the decision to gather in Baltimore, suggesting that it signaled a commitment to cities.
"We are a city that continues to struggle," Cummings said earlier in the week, invoking Freddie Gray and the riots that followed his death last year. "It shows faith in our cities, the fact that we would be here."
A number of Democratic leaders have noted their own personal connections to the city. Pelosi grew up in Little Italy and learned politics at the knee of her father, former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. Her brother, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, also served as the city's mayor, from 1967 to 1971.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.