WASHINGTON — If President Barack Obama and Democrats have their way, voters will see this year's midterm elections as a stark choice: Republicans pushing failed policies from a bygone era versus Democrats advocating for freedom and opportunity for all Americans.
Far be it for Republicans to cede that argument. The GOP has its own designs for 2014, hoping to paint Democrats as a party whose promises of jobs, effective government and affordable health care have all fallen flat.
None of those critiques were on display Friday evening, as Obama rallied the party faithful at a Democratic National Committee summit. Instead, Obama rattled off a list of issues where he said Republicans were stuck in the past: gay rights, women's equality, wages and health care, to name a few.
"What they are offering is not a new theory," Obama said, asserting that Republicans had advocated the same policies in the run-up to the Great Depression, the recent recession and the 2012 election. "And the American people said, "No, thanks.'"
In a boisterous and decidedly partisan speech, Obama seized the opportunity to mock Republicans — to the delight of the Democratic officials, donors and activists who packed a hotel ballroom near the White House. While acknowledging early setbacks in rolling out his health care law, Obama ridiculed his political foes for trying time and again to repeal the law.
"You know what they say: Fiftieth time is the charm," Obama said to laughter. "Maybe when you hit your 50th repeal vote you will win a prize."
Riffing on women's rights and the GOP, Obama quipped: "This isn't 1954. It's 2014."
Such partisan rhetoric from the president had the desired effect of revving up members of his party, some of whom are openly fretting that the unpopular health law, Obama's low approval ratings and historical trends could all work in Republicans' favor this year.
But it also served as a clear reminder that the encroaching election, with all the political posturing it will bring, augers poorly for anything Obama wants to accomplish with Congress this year. After all, 2014 offers Obama potentially the last opportunity to secure legislative achievements before attention turns to the 2016 presidential election and Obama's successor.
"Obviously, this is an election year. But an election that's eight months away shouldn't stop us from making progress right now," Obama said, echoing his State of the Union refrain that he'll work with Congress whenever possible but will act unilaterally to expand economic opportunity however he can.
Republican National Committee Reince Priebus said Americans are still waiting for the opportunity and jobs that Obama keeps talking about. He pointed to Obama's proposed minimum wage hike and health care law as examples of policies that do nothing to help Americans who are out of work.
"Maybe it's time to give up on the speeches that include a lot of promises but not a lot of action," Priebus said.
Obama has committed to holding nearly three dozen fundraisers for Democratic political committees by the middle of 2014 — including an eye-popping 18 events for the DNC, whose millions of dollars of lingering debt more than a year after the last presidential election has Democrats fretting.
In a twist from previous midterms, Obama will even headline fundraisers for super PACs, which he once disparaged but has more recently embraced, arguing Democrats mustn't be steamrolled by GOP outside groups even if the flood of largely unregulated donations leaves a bitter taste for those who hunger for cleaner American elections.
And as Democratic incumbents seek to position themselves for the election, Obama's aides are working with Democratic leaders in the Senate and House to coordinate votes that will bolster the themes they'll be pressing during the campaign, said a White House official, who would speak only on condition of anonymity to discuss internal Democratic deliberations. Obama also plans to do what he can to boost Democratic turnout, while his campaign's vaunted voter data and technology will be made available to all 2014 candidates, the official said.
At the DNC's winter meeting, Obama said that numerically, if Democrats show up at the polls in full force, their candidates will succeed. "When Democrats vote, we win," he said. But he warned that Republicans are counting on traditionally low turnout by Democrats in midterm years.
Urging Democrats not to cede the argument on issues where they believe Americans are on their side, Obama pointed to recent legislation in Arizona that was trumpeted as promoting religious freedom but criticized by others as discriminating against gays. He said Democrats know that freedom means being able to shop in a store or restaurant without facing discrimination over who you are or who you love.
"As Democrats, we've let the other side define the word 'freedom' for too long," Obama said.
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