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In Stimulus Debate, Obama Drifts Into Campaign Mode

President Obama speaks to the House Democratic Issues Conference Thursday in Williamsburg, Va. (AP Photo)

President Obama is facing growing questions about his tone and the effectiveness of his leadership after he spent Thursday night mocking his political rivals and accusing them of playing games with the economic stimulus

In an off-the-cuff moment during his speech to House Democrats at a retreat in Virginia, the president ribbed Republicans, including former rival John McCain, who call the recovery package a "spending bill." 

"So then you get the argument, 'well, this is not a stimulus bill, this is a spending bill.' What do you think a stimulus is? That's the whole point," Obama said to laughter. 

Conservatives are complaining that while Obama held a set of good-faith bipartisan meetings with congressional leaders in January, now he's reverted to campaign mode in a bid to muscle the more than $900 billion package through Congress. Obama said Friday it is "inexcusable and irresponsible" to delay passage of the recovery plan. 

"He reduced himself from being president of all the American people to being the partisan leader of the left," former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich said of Obama's Thursday night speech. "The first month of your presidency is not a very good time to give a campaign speech." 

Senate Democratic leaders are scrambling to pick off the bare minimum of votes needed to pull the contentious spending package across the finish line. Republicans and some Democrats are still concerned about the size of the more than $900 billion package and want to pare it down considerably, though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants a vote by late Friday afternoon. 

Obama, who cultivated the image of a post-partisan leader, has been hitting campaign themes in recent days, accusing Republicans in media interviews, an op-ed in The Washington Post and public speeches of reverting to the failed policies of tax cuts. He referenced his own political capital Thursday night and Friday. 

"They did not choose more of the same in November," Obama said Friday. "They sent us here to make change." 

He dismissed what he called "phony arguments and petty politics" Thursday. 

"You can nit and you can pick and, you know, that's the game we all play here. We know how to play that game. What I'm saying is now we can't afford to play that game. We've got to pull together," Obama said. 

But those who are negotiating a compromise measure do not consider their meetings a political ploy. 

While Obama points to Friday's Labor Department report -- which shows more than a half-million jobs lost in January -- as another warning of the coming "catastrophe" if Congress does not act, many lawmakers think the long-term damage of a bloated spending bill is just as dangerous. 

They say the bill, which some have taken to calling the "spendulus," still contains billions of dollars in wasteful spending. Though moderates are trying to pare it down to close to $800 billion, the joint tax committee just came out with a new price tag putting the current package at about $937 billion. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell continued to raise flags about the size of the bill Friday, saying, "We need to get it right." 

Even public opinion has turned skeptical toward the package. 

Obama has scheduled a prime-time press conference to discuss his goals Monday night, and plans to travel next week to Indiana and Florida to sell the package to taxpayers. He and his aides have been working the phones with lawmakers and meeting with Reid over the bill. 

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday the president is merely "energized" on behalf of the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs. 

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Thursday accused Obama of being "AWOL" on the legislation. He criticized the president for trying to "scare" the public in his op-ed and media interviews. 

House GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence on Friday issued a written statement saying he was "disappointed" that Obama seemed to have "so quickly abandoned his call for bipartisanship and has resorted to tough political rhetoric" to pass the bill. 

McCain has also complained that the administration has not consulted with Republicans in recent days. 

"I don't see this legislation doing anything good," McCain told FOX News Wednesday, saying he hasn't seen "serious negotiations" between the two parties and that the bill is laden with "parochial interests."

Gingrich said Obama needs to call a bipartisan summit for intensive negotiations. 

But Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., disputed the charges of light leadership. 

"This is a shared process," he told FOX News. "The president can't write this bill. The Congress has to, but the two can mutually collaborate." 

As to Obama's Thursday night remarks, Nelson said: "He's just frustrated that this thing is wound around the axle." 

Nelson said the Democratic leadership is just a few votes away and he expects the package to pass Friday evening or over the weekend. 

But Reid, despite tough talk Thursday in which he warned the group of 18 senators negotiating the compromise not to hold the president "hostage," does not appear to have the votes yet. 

"We're not holding anybody hostage, and we're not going to be held hostage," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., one of the negotiators. "If [Reid] had [the votes], he would have used them last night." 

Specter said he wants the spending bill to come in under $800 billion.