WASHINGTON – Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele likened President Barack Obama's popularity to that of a celebrity and said Republicans can't be afraid of criticizing him head-on if they want to regain their relevance.
"He's young. He's cool. He's hip ... he's got all the qualities America likes in a celebrity, so of course he's going to be popular," Steele told state party chairmen Tuesday. But "this is not American Idol. This is serious ... and we are going to take them on."
Steele said the GOP has owned up to the mistakes that caused its fall from power and is embarking on a renaissance.
"The era of apologizing for Republican mistakes of the past is now officially over," he said. "We have turned the corner. No more looking in the rearview mirror. From this point forward, we will focus all of our energies on winning the future."
The Republican National Committee chief is seeking to re-establish himself as the head of the beleaguered party and set its course. His speech comes after a rocky start to his two-year term that drew criticism from some longtime RNC members as well as a sustained Democratic campaign tagging conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh as the GOP's titular head.
Even as he called for a unified front, Steele was fending off efforts to strip him of some control over RNC operations from a small band of internal critics who say he is mismanaging the organization. He also was opposing a resolution — whose final wording hadn't yet been set but was expected for a vote Wednesday — in which Republicans would rename the Democratic Party as a "Nationalist Socialist Democrat" party.
Steele and others said the party should focus its efforts elsewhere.
"I think it's stupid," Florida GOP Chairman James Greer said of the name resolution. "These are trying times. We need to be serious."
Greer and other state chairmen said Steele, who drew a loud standing ovation at Tuesday's speech, continues to enjoy strong support among most party leaders.
"Obviously there was going to be a learning curve, but I certainly support Chairman Steele. I like the fact that he's going on offense," said Alabama Chairman Mike Hubbard. "I think everybody's willing to give (him) some time."
Steele is trying to steer a GOP that's out of power in the White House, Congress and a slew of statehouses across the country. The party also has no natural successor to former President George W. Bush. And the GOP is in the midst of an intense debate over its identity while facing an emboldened Democratic Party that's grown larger under Obama's leadership — at the Republicans' expense.
Steele played down the obstacles and claimed the GOP's comeback is "well under way" in the states. But he said people in Washington don't recognize it yet.
"Republicans may be the minority party at the moment, but we represent the ideas and concerns of the majority of Americans," Steele said. "Candidate Obama was very moderate in his views, but President Obama could not possibly be further to the far left."
Steele said the GOP will take on Obama with class and dignity, unlike the "shabby and classless way" Democrats took on Bush.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan said that while Steele talks of moving forward, the party remains bogged down in name-calling and petty politics.
"The test of the sincerity of the chairman's words will be if he and the other GOP leaders stand up to the fringe elements of their party," Sevugan said. "Unfortunately, they have shown no willingness to do so."
Steele, I have the same thing to say I have every time I see you've opened your mouth.