President Barack Obama sang his Capitol Hill swan song Wednesday.
With less than three weeks to go in his administration, Obama’s meeting with congressional Democrats was likely the last of his presidency and left many lawmakers wishing for just a little more time.
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“This was the best meeting that we have had with the president in the eight years that he has been in the White House,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said. “It saddens me that he and we missed some great opportunities over the last eight years.”
Obama used the time to try and rally election-weary lawmakers — and brace them for the blistering policy fights they’re soon to face without him.
The gathering — the first time Obama’s huddled with Democrats on the Hill since the summer 2015 — was part pep rally, part retirement party send off, attendees said.
“It was bittersweet because he’s leaving and we know what replaces him. You want to hold him, like ‘don’t go yet,’” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said.
The president reflected on his time in the White House, seeking to remind Democrats how far they’ve come over the last eight years from a cratering economy in 2009 to an unemployment rate that’s under 5 percent now. And he tried to be encouraging, members said, as Democrats prepare for years in the minority with Republicans controlling all the levers of power in Washington.
But unlike previous meetings, Obama seemed to acknowledge he would no longer be the standard bearer in coming fights with Republicans, and the battle over their effort to repeal Obamacare, in particular.
“He basically said he envies us because he’d like to be still in office to some degree to fight with us,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said after the meeting. “But he was very clear that as a citizen, he was going to lend his voice to this.”
Instead, he was there more as the knowledgeable friend, offering advice but with the understanding that he will soon be on the sidelines as the fight to save his trademark policy achievement — and his legacy — rages on without him.
“Some members were expecting the president to offer a silver bullet but he didn’t bring that,” said one lawmaker after the meeting.
Most of the 1.5-hour confab focused on Obamacare and Republican plans to target the healthcare law for repeal. But Obama also took several questions from lawmakers, highlighting the auto industry bailout at one point and his efforts to protect so-called “Dreamers” at another.
The president said Democrats should apply unrelenting political pressure on Republicans to produce a replacement for Obamacare — at one point joking that the GOP plan should be called “Trumpcare” — and organize national grassroots outreach to get their message to voters.
He also made a couple of dad jokes, saying the lack of a GOP replacement option reminded him of the famous “Where’s the beef?” commercial from Wendy’s and Cuba Gooding Jr.’s “show me the money” moment from Jerry Maguire.
At one point, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) presented Obama with a flag flown over the Capitol during his inauguration in 2009.
At the time, Pelosi, then House speaker, had ordered 300 flags to be flown over the Capitol that day. She had handed one out to every Democratic member but had some extras, one of which she gave to the president today.
Obama, whose tenuous relationship with Congress has been well-documented over the years, seemed to relish the final hurrah. The president arrived shortly before 9:30 a.m. and stayed more than an hour and a half, leaving at 11:10 a.m. even though staffers had insisted before he’d be out by 11 a.m., and no later, to keep on schedule.
Obama was having such a good time that his staff interrupted twice trying to nudge him to wrap up the meeting but he kept taking questions.
“I had to check my eyes, for a brief moment I thought Joe Biden had come up on the stage,” Cleaver said of the famously loquacious vice president.
The president was also reflective, taking some responsibility for the current battle over healthcare.
“I will take the responsibility for not having fully communicated with the American people for why this is an extraordinary victory for them,” he told lawmakers.
But he was also hopeful, urging Democrats to stand strong in what’s likely to be a bruising, long-term fight as Republicans work to dismantle the healthcare law.
“When you have an entire party whose single purpose is preventing people from getting health care that is coloring the debate,” he told lawmakers, according to a source in the room. “Despite the negativity you have a big chunk of the country that wants this thing to succeed.”
But Obama was careful not to hammer home a specific strategy. He told members they should launch a national effort to engage voters but didn’t suggest specific tactics, according to attendees.
While the meeting mostly focused on the healthcare law, members said the most emotional moment came when Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked the president what will happen to the so-called “Dreamers”— unauthorized immigrants brought here as children — once President-elect Donald Trump takes over.
On the campaign trail Trump promised to rollback Obama’s executive action shielding those immigrants from deportation but has since softened his tone.
“Those are good kids who didn’t do anything wrong,” Obama told Democrats.
The president smiled as he left, shaking the hands of Senate pages lined up outside the auditorium and even answering a question from a POLITICO reporter on his way out.
“Look out for the American people,” he replied when asked what his advice was for Democrats in the coming months.