CAMBRIDGE, Md. (AP) — President Barack Obama told House Democrats Friday to be ready to work with Republicans if they show a willingness to put politics aside even “for just a nanosecond,” but to stay firm and push back if the GOP stands in the way.

“Where they obstruct, where they’re unwilling to act, where they’re more interested in party than they are in country, more interested in the next election than the next generation, then we’ve got to call them out on it,” Obama said at the annual House Democratic caucus retreat. “We’ve got to push. We can’t wait, we can’t be held back.”

Coming off a three-day tour of politically important states to promote his State of the Union message of economic opportunity, Obama promised a “robust debate” with Republicans once they choose their nominee, but reminded Democrats that in the meantime, there were things they could do to help the public, including working to extend a payroll tax cut for the remainder of the year.

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Despite some past clashes with House Democrats over his willingness to compromise with Republicans, Obama was warmly received and was introduced as “our champion” by Rep. John Larson of Connecticut.

The president returned the warmth with a vote of confidence that Democrats would win back the House in November, making a nod to their leader as “soon-to-be once-again Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.”

“I believe in you guys. You guys have had my back through some very tough times. I’m going to have your back as well and together we’re going to move this country forward,” he said in a pep talk to the Democrats, who’ve gathered in Maryland for a three-day retreat.

The president spoke of rigors of the debate ahead, the cynicism in the country about Washington and the work they can all do together. He encountered a more unified group of House Democrats, who have welcomed the populist pitch and middle-class message of his State of the Union address Tuesday night. The bitter divisions among Republican White House hopefuls have helped bring them together, as well.

“It’s going to be a tough election because a lot of people are still hurting out there, and a lot of people have lost faith generally about the capacity of Washington to get anything done,” Obama said.

“The main thing I want to urge all of you is that even as we are out there making our case, even as we push hard to persuade not just the American people but hopefully some folks on the other side about the brightness of our future, if we work together I think it’s important in the course of this year not to forget that there’s still work we can do right now,” he said.

Obama spoke after the Democrats heard from Vice President Joe Biden, who said that Republican obstructionism will help Democrats’ elections prospects in November, from the party’s hopes of reclaiming the House to President Barack Obama’s bid for a second term.

Biden, delivering more pointedly political remarks than Obama did and calling out some Republicans by name, said the American people will reject GOP unwillingness to compromise and its blatant determination to make Obama a one-term president.

Biden also said Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s criticism of the auto bailout and a host of positions stated by rival Newt Gingrich on government intervention will create a clear contrast for voters.

“These guys are helping us by saying what they believe,” Biden said.

“We need this to be rung out. Their America vs. our America,” the vice president said.

Biden mentioned the disconnect that’s existed between the administration and House Democrats.

At last year’s conference, Biden said the message he heard from Pelosi, D-Calif., was “get tough. Enough is enough.” He said several Democrats in the room were furious when the administration agreed on an end-of-the-year deal on extending President George W. Bush’s tax cuts in December 2010.

“The message was heard. The message was heard,” Biden said. “And I think we’ve delivered.”

House Democrats echoed many of the themes from Obama’s speech on economic fairness, boosting manufacturing and helping middle-class Americans, a reflection of campaign messaging and a recognition that their fate is inextricably linked to the president. They held a series of closed-door sessions on strategy for the coming year and later spoke to reporters.

It comes in a week in which Democrats saw some positive signs, from Obama’s address to polls showing more voters think the country is on the right track, to a daring hostage rescue of an American in Somalia. Signs of an economic rebound are prevalent; Commerce Secretary John Bryson told the Democrats that of the 3 million new jobs, 300,000 were in manufacturing.

As for the Democrats’ own finances, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised more than $61 million last year and has $11.6 million cash on hand. It also eliminated a lingering debt.

Democrats face a tough challenge in recapturing the House as Republicans have shored up their vulnerable lawmakers through redistricting. The GOP scoffs at the notion that Democrats can win the 25 seats necessary to take control.

Democratic leaders said Obama should run against a “do-nothing Congress” to highlight for American voters how Republicans have obstructed his agenda.

Republicans signaled they have a ready response to the White House strategy.

“The president can blame anyone he wants, but it won’t change the fact that this year will be a referendum on his economic record,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.