By Thomas Ferraro
CAMBRIDGE, Maryland (Reuters) - Congressional Democrats have complained in the past that they have not felt the love from President Barack Obama and accuse the White House of not consulting them on key policies. But when Obama addressed them on Friday it was a love-fest.
Democratic members of the House of Representatives gave him a standing ovation and a compact disc in which they all sang "I'm So In Love With You," the first line of Al Green's hit song "Let's Stay Together."
Just three months ago some lawmakers talked privately of keeping their distance from Obama in 2012 because they feared voters' unhappiness with his economic stewardship would hurt their election campaigns.
Relations between Obama and congressional Democrats deteriorated after Republicans won the House in 2010. Democrats complained Obama was too willing to compromise at the expense of Democratic principles.
But ties have improved as Obama has become more combative toward Republicans over taxes and jobs and sought to draw a sharp contrast with Republican presidential hopefuls vying to face him in the November 6 election.
Wrapping up a cross-country tour to promote a populist agenda laid out in this week's State of the Union address, Obama hammered home a re-election campaign appeal for greater economic fairness and called on fellow Democrats to close ranks with him.
Obama used his speech to the Democratic lawmakers' retreat in Maryland to turn up the heat on Republicans, who have accused him of pursuing class warfare and assailed his State of the Union proposals, including higher taxes on wealthier Americans.
"Where they obstruct, where they're unwilling to act, where they're more interested in party than they are in country ... then we've got to call them out on it," Obama said to loud applause. "We've got to push them. We can't wait. We can't be held back."
'RISE OR FALL TOGETHER'
Obama called on congressional Democrats to close ranks with him as he seeks to persuade voters to give him a second term despite a fragile economy and high unemployment.
Obama is campaigning against a "do-nothing" Congress, highlighting the partisan gridlock that has paralyzed decision-making on job creation and tackling record deficits. "Congress" is White House code for Republicans, but some Democratic lawmakers worry that distinction may be lost on voters, who already have a low opinion of the polarized legislature.
"We are going to rise or fall together," Representative Henry Waxman said of the Democrats' bid to retain the Senate, keep the presidency and take back the House.
Waxman's comments were echoed by other lawmakers at the retreat who signaled that the tensions that bedeviled relations with the White House in 2011 were in the past.
"There is always some tension between the legislative and executive branches of government," said Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House. "But we are a team, and we want to head in the same direction."
While Congress's approval ratings are at record lows, Obama's have edged up to nearly 50 percent.
"The president is running a lot stronger than we are," said Representative Jim Moran. "His train is moving in the right direction. We ought to get on," said Moran, who just months ago questioned how vigorously Democrats would campaign for Obama.
Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report said the Democrats' warmer embrace of Obama underscored that "you always reach a point in an election cycle, and I think we are now there, where you realize it's hard not to run with the president, it's hard to walk away from the head of the ticket."
The retreat in the waterfront town of Cambridge featured a number of private sessions to ready Democrats for the campaign, including one entitled: "How to run when the president is running against Congress."
Obama first tested his anti-Congress strategy late last year, upsetting Democrats over what they saw as his failure to differentiate between Democrats and Republicans.
"The president upset a lot of us with the attacks," said a top Democratic aide. "It showed White House arrogance. They didn't even bother to consult with us on it."
Obama has since soothed hard feelings by being more discriminate in his attacks, although he still frequently refers to his willingness to act when Congress will not.
Most Democratic lawmakers figure Obama will be more of a help than a hindrance to their own re-elections, particularly in raising money and rallying the party's liberal base, lawmakers and analysts say.
Yet many, particularly those in conservative states, are likely to run away from his 2010 overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system, which drew Republican fire and a public backlash.
Vice President Joe Biden, speaking at the retreat on Friday, predicted Democrats would win the House and jokingly acknowledged that the White House could help or hurt members, depending on the politics of their respective districts.
"I'm prepared to row or ski anywhere and campaign for you. (But) if it helps to be against you, I'll be against you," Biden quipped.
Opinion polls show that voters have a slightly higher opinion of Democrats in Congress than their Republican counterparts, but pollsters say Democrats will struggle to pick up the 25 House seats they need to regain control of the 435-seat chamber.
(Additional reporting by Alister Bull and Matt Spetalnick in Washington, writing by Thomas Ferraro, editing by Ross Colvin and Marilyn Thompson)