President Barack Obama told House Democratic lawmakers assembled Friday on Maryland's Eastern Shore that Congress must focus on increasing the federal minimum wage and changing immigration laws ahead of a midterm election that he acknowledged could be difficult for his party.
In a 20-minute pep talk that echoed themes he sounded during his recent State of the Union address, Obama told lawmakers in Cambridge attending an annual retreat that he needs their help on those twin goals, despite his recent emphasis on working around Capitol Hill on other issues.
Though Obama has long had a tough relationship with Republican House leaders, there has increasingly also been tension within the Democratic Party as the president approaches the midpoint of his second term and polls show his approval rating slipping after the troubled rollout of his signature health care law.
In a nod to those concerns, the president thanked House Democrats for "hanging in there" with the Affordable Care Act. And he pointed to recent national data showing that more than 3 million Americans have enrolled for coverage under the new law.
"I think 10 years from now, five years from now, we're going to look back and say this was a monumental achievement that could not have happened had it not been for this caucus," the president said.
House Democrats have been holding a three-day retreat in Cambridge as they have done in past years. The meetings, which took place despite a snowstorm that socked much of the East Coast, are a chance for the caucus to discuss strategy and to craft a broad message for the coming year.
Vice President Joe Biden also addressed the lawmakers Friday.
Obama largely focused his remarks on two policies: raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour and reworking the nation's immigration laws. Both items are key priorities for Democrats heading into the election this fall.
The president signed an executive order Wednesday that raises the minimum wage for some new government contractors, though the action will have limited effect. Democrats are pressing for an increase in the overall minimum wage as part of a broader effort to address income inequality. The federal minimum wage last increased in 2009.
"Now it's time for Congress to act," Obama said. "America deserves a raise."
Republicans have generally opposed the move out of fear that it could force employers to slow hiring. Because of that — and despite polls showing a majority of Americans support an increase — it's not clear whether the president will have much luck on the issue. He called for a similar increase in last year's State of the Union.
The slow economic recovery and uneasy health care rollout have complicated Democratic re-election efforts nationally. Obama acknowledged that fact during his address Friday, noting that the head of the re-election effort for House Democrats, New York Rep. Steve Israel, was "doing an extraordinary job under very difficult circumstances."
All 435 House seats and 36 of 100 Senate seats are up for election this year. Republicans are expected to keep control of the House and will also try to seize control of the Senate. Democrats currently hold a 55-to-45 majority in the Senate. The seven House Democrats in Maryland are considered safe for re-election.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said in a statement that the speech helps sharpen the party's priorities for the year and that he intends to work closely with the White House on the president's second-term agenda.
Republicans countered that Obama isn't doing his party any favors by ignoring what they view as the negative economic impact of the health care law.
"Unfortunately, the president still isn't talking about ways he can work with the Republicans in the House to help the struggling economy create jobs," said Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican who represents the Eastern Shore.
Obama also spent time discussing immigration, which appeared to be gaining momentum when Republicans met in Cambridge for their own retreat several weeks ago. But since then, House Speaker John Boehner has put the brakes on the effort, suggesting the House would not move forward until the president gained the trust of the GOP caucus.
The president warned against punting on the issue until after the election.
"I believe, frankly, that there are folks on the other side of the aisle who genuinely want to see this done, but they're worried and they're scared about the political blowback," he said. "But when it comes to immigration reform, we have to remind ourselves that there are people behind the statistics, that there are lives that are being impacted."
Lawmakers from both parties often hold their retreat in Cambridge. The president last spoke with the caucus on the Eastern Shore in 2012. Both parties meet at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay, one of a handful of hotels in the region that can accommodate the large group and that is easy to secure.
For local residents, the meetings are such a regular occurrence that they barely notice. Lawmakers generally don't stray from the hotel campus, and aside from a few news conferences, most of the retreat takes place behind closed doors.
Lee Green, owner of the Killarney B Inn B, located about a quarter-mile from the Hyatt, said there were no disruptions from the event.
"We are so used to that," she said, "we don't even pay attention anymore."