WASHINGTON -- Just a year after celebrating Barack Obama's inauguration, despondent Democrats on Saturday heard from their party leader who urged optimism in the face of Republicans' strong challenge to their congressional dominance.
The president said political leaders must plot their way forward to November with an understanding of the economic difficulties Americans face.
"I understand their frustration. You understand it as well," Obama said.
At its winter meeting, a defiant Democratic Party worked to project a message of strength even as loyalists acknowledged the prospect of several defeats in November. The party that controls the White House typically loses seats during midterm elections at an average rate of 28 net House seats. President Bill Clinton, the last Democratic commander in chief, lost control of Congress in his first term and Democrats privately are predicting it could happen again.
Obama, looking to write his own history, warned fellow Democrats that "we have to acknowledge that change can't come quickly enough."
A government report on Friday put the unemployment rate at 9.7 percent. Distrust of Washington has grown and spurred an anti-Washington sentiment that sent scores of activists to a "tea party" convention in Nashville on the same day. Another sign of the tone: Republican Sen. Scott Brown won a special election to take the seat of the late, liberal Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Democrats also lost gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey that had been in Democratic hands.
Obama sought to energize Democratic loyalists against what he called "the other party." He urged Democrats to work with their Republican counterparts.
"We can't solve all of our problems alone," Obama said, as the audience sat in silence.
While Republicans have stood in solid opposition to the president's proposed overhaul of health care, Obama insisted he wasn't willing to abandon the domestic priority that has consumed months of his agenda and has fallen short of victory, for now.
"Let me be clear: I am not going to walk away from health care insurance reform," Obama said, bringing the audience in the hotel ballroom to their feet.
Republicans, though, made clear the Democrats' current health proposals must be scrapped.
"If they get past this arrogant phase that they have been stuck in about a year, if they can work their way past that and concentrate on the real problem which is the cost, we are willing to look at it," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "To work together, first you have to do it on a bipartisan basis."
Obama, recognizing his agenda can't be accomplished without GOP support, in recent weeks has been emphasizing the need for bipartisanship as a way of moving forward.
"We can't return to the dereliction of duty," Obama said. "America can't afford to wait, and we can't look backward."
His party, for certain, would prefer not to revisit its ordeals of 2009, which produced some victories but hardly the narrative that would deliver them electoral victories this year.
"I know we've gone through a tough year. But we've gone through tougher," Obama said.
DNC chairman Tim Kaine, the former Democratic governor of Virginia who saw a Republican follow him into office, insisted that Democrats should not be despondent, even if the path forward has become more difficult following the Massachusetts Senate election.
"The ghost of Harry Truman would kill us if he heard us complaining about having only 59 Democratic senators," Kaine said.
Around the room Saturday at the DNC meeting, Democrats sought to remain upbeat.
"The fight's been tough," said Alejandra Salinas, the chair of the Young Democrats of America's Hispanic caucus. "We might lose some seats, but we'll pick up new ones."
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington's nonvoting representative in the U.S. House, said Democrats would continue to keep up the fight.
"They underestimated us four years ago when we took back the Congress," she said. "They underestimated Barack Obama when he took back the White House. The fight is on. Never underestimate Democrats."
Raymond Buckley, the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said the national Democratic party needs to help state groups deliver the Obama message.
"We can't win in 2010 if all we're doing is celebrating the election of 2008," said Buckley, who is also vice chairman of the DNC. "We haven't gotten out the message of this administration's successes."