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To some Democrats in Congress, Obama is a new man

U.S. President Barack Obama gestures during remarks at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Lansdowne, Virginia, February 7, 2013. REUT
U.S. President Barack Obama gestures during remarks at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Lansdowne, Virginia, February 7, 2013. REUT

By Thomas Ferraro

LEESBURG, Virginia (Reuters) - Democrats in Congress have always had some gripes with their president, Barack Obama. He doesn't call. He doesn't schmooze. He's not tough enough with Republicans.

But this year, the complaints, as well as the complainers, are fewer than ever, with some of his old critics confessing that they're starting to come around.

That's the message from the annual retreat in suburban Virginia of Democratic members of the House of Representatives.

"I really like this new man," said Democratic Representative Louise Slaughter of New York, one of those who during Obama's first term thought he was too compromising.

"I've been a little hard on him, but he finally understands that Republicans really don't like him and tried to destroy him," Slaughter said. "He wants to get things done. So do I."

Slaughter was referring to the aggressive agenda Obama has pursued since winning re-election in November, with immigration reform and gun violence, longtime favorites of the progressive base of the Democratic Party, at the top of the list.

Liberals were critical of Obama during his first term for lack of action on both these issues as well as on climate change. Fiscally conservative Democrats criticized his nearly $800 billion economic stimulus plan in 2009.

Moderates in the Senate - such as then Senators Evan Bayh of Indiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska - thought him insufficiently attentive to the economy.

He faced the broadest barrage from his own party in December 2010, when he compromised with Republicans by agreeing to extend the so-called Bush tax cuts, instead of letting them expire.

That was the darkest moment for House Democrats, who had lost control of their majority in the mid-term election the month before, in part because of Obama's handling of the economy.

Fresh from what Democrats see as an Obama triumph in this January's "fiscal cliff" showdown with Republicans, members gave the president a sustained ovation here on Thursday.

A reflective Obama said: "The fascinating thing about this job is that the longer you are in it, the more humble you get and the more you recognize your own imperfections."

Noting there's more work ahead, Obama added, "What we've learned over the last four years - at least what I have learned - is that it won't be smooth, it won't simple, there will be frustrations, there will be times where you guys are mad at me."

Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said that he sees a "reinvigorated" Obama in the wake of winning a second term.

"This is not as a result of some personality change," Van Hollen said. "It is a result of the fact that he has the public wind behind him coming out of the election."

When his approval rating was below 50 percent in Gallup's tracking polls through much of 2010 and 2011, some Democrats campaigning for re-election to Congress didn't even want to be seen with him.

Now that he's at 53 percent - as of February 3 - he's a man in demand.

Some Democrats even complain that they don't see him or hear from him enough, particularly as he seeks to transform his agenda into law.

"In terms of getting legislation through, I think he's going to have to do a little more schmoozing," said Democratic Representative Jim Moran of Virginia.

"It is not enough to just work with leadership," Moran said. "He's going to have to continue to work on relationships. Politics is personal."

Recalling a phone call he got at home from then-President Bill Clinton to side with him in support of a major trade treaty, Moran added: "I admire the president for trying to be above the fray, but we've never had major legislation passed without the president getting into the fray."

Others, like Democratic Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, say they don't expect to see the president much, and are more than happy to work with Obama's aides.

"I know he's busy. That's fine," said Scott, who was among a dozen House Democrats who met with Vice President Joe Biden last month in the crafting of recommendations to combat gun violence.

Democrats are pleased that Obama refused to negotiate with Republicans last month about raising the debt limit, which led to a Republican retreat on the issue and legislation to let the government continue borrowing at least until May 19.

Above all, liberals are happy to see their issues elevated on the president's agenda.

In the first term, Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois said, the White House was consumed with counting votes and Obama didn't move on issues such as immigration because he figured he would lose.

"He now understands that for there to be a vote count that wins, you have to start the fight," Gutierrez said. "I see a president in his second term doing exactly the kind of things that we have encouraged him to do."

(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Fred Barbash, Claudia Parsons and Lisa Shumaker)

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