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Obama's Shift In Rhetoric Helping Democrats Stick Together

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid celebrate the open enrollment of the Affordable Care Act on Tuesday. During the government shutdown, the Democrats have been more unified than they have been in a long time.
Michael Reynolds
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid celebrate the open enrollment of the Affordable Care Act on Tuesday. During the government shutdown, the Democrats have been more unified than they have been in a long time.

President Obama has been railing against Republicans in Congress nearly every day this week.

"One faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government shut down major parts of the government," he said in the White House Rose Garden on Tuesday. "All because they didn't like one law."

He's expected to take that message on the road on Thursday, visiting a construction company in Maryland to talk about the impact of the shutdown on the economy.

And that finger-pointing at Republicans is sure to be part of his speech again.

Obama's rhetoric in this conflict is a shift from some of his earlier complaints about Congress — and that's having a positive effect on Democrats.

Talking about his adversaries who work in the Capitol in 2011, for example, he characterized lawmakers as lazy, saying, "There shouldn't be any reason for Congress to drag its feet."

In 2010, he described them as wasteful. "Congress has provided unrequested money for more C-17s that the Pentagon doesn't want or need," he said.

In those speeches, the enemy was not specifically the House or the Senate, not Republicans or Democrats. Often it was just "Congress."

"There's a long and honorable tradition going back to Harry Truman of running against the Congress," says former Democratic Sen. Ted Kaufman of Delaware.

That tactic worked for Obama — he was running for re-election at the time. But it rankled congressional Democrats.

"Obviously, if you're part of the criticism, you don't feel good about it," Kaufman says. "I mean, one of the things that really bothers Democrats in the Senate is ... when people say, 'Well, it's the Republicans and the Democrats — it's all of you.' "

Back then, Obama was also trying to reach a grand bargain with Republicans. Singling them out as the enemy wouldn't have done much good. So he lumped in his own party as part of the problem.

Now the situation has changed dramatically, and so has Obama's rhetoric. The president does not pass up any chance to single out his adversaries as a minority within the GOP.

Earlier this week, he told NPR: "One party to this conversation says that the only way that they come to the table is if they get 100 percent of what they want, and if they don't, they threaten to burn down the house."

Ed Rogers, a Republican strategist, says he believes that Obama should try to bring people together instead of singling out troublemakers.

"Washington is sort of a symphony with a lot of talented people playing different instruments," says Rogers. "But it needs a conductor."

Democrats argue that if this is a symphony, then Obama the conductor should call out the people who constantly play sour notes. And they feel energized by Obama's recent willingness to do so.

As former Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia, now with the Center for American Progress Action Fund, puts it: "I think to the extent some Democrats were frustrated early on that he seemed sometimes more interested in working with Republicans than working with Democrats, I think now there's sort of an understanding that this is about people who are willing to step up."

Democrats are more unified than they've been in a long time. As the shutdown plays out, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., appears to be on the exact same page as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. And both are marching in lock step with the White House.

But Rogers, the GOP strategist, wonders: To what end?

He says the Democrats are "cohesive in that they feel better about themselves, maybe. Cohesive in the sense that anybody is more effective in making government work, no, I don't see any evidence of that."

Nobody would argue that the government is working today.

The Capitol appears to be in all-out partisan war. And for once, the Democrats feel relieved that theirs is not the party with the circular firing squad.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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