Obama begins campaign-style jobs tour in key states
ASHEVILLE, North Carolina (Reuters) – President Barack Obama sought on Monday to turn up the heat on Republicans blocking his jobs package in Congress as he embarked on a campaign-style bus tour across states vital to his 2012 re-election chances.
Hitting the road again, this time in the swing states of North Carolina and Virginia, Obama attempted to rally public support in pressuring lawmakers to pass at least parts of his $ 447 billion jobs agenda, even after the plan as a whole was defeated last week.
“We’re going to give members of Congress a chance to step up to the plate and to do the right thing,” Obama told a cheering crowd at the airport in Asheville, North Carolina, the starting point for his slow-rolling, three-day trek through small Southern towns in a jet-black armored bus.
As Obama spoke, a senior party aide in Washington said Senate Democrats planned to force a vote this week on a portion of the jobs bill. The aide said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is crafting a proposal to provide about $ 35 billion to help states hire and prevent layoffs of teachers, firefighters and police officers.
Obama’s strategy is to force Republicans to give ground or else be painted as obstructionists impeding his drive to revive the stagnant U.S. economy and reduce high unemployment as voters focus more on looming presidential and congressional election races.
With anti-Wall Street protests gaining momentum across the country, Obama was also expected to try to harness public anger at corporate greed against Republicans he accuses of trying to shield millionaires and billionaires from higher taxes he wants them to pay to help fund his jobs plan.
Obama, whose poll numbers have fallen over public discontent with his economic stewardship, has voiced sympathy with the grievances of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement but has done so cautiously, not least because of his own economic team’s ties to the financial industry.
He made no direct mention of the protests in his speech on the airport tarmac, but criticized Republicans for trying to roll back sweeping Wall Street financial reforms that he championed early in his term.
DEADLOCK IN CONGRESS
Republicans say Obama’s original jobs package was laden with wasteful spending and counterproductive tax hikes for wealthier Americans. His opponents have accused him of demonizing them and promoting “class warfare” instead of working with them to find areas of agreement.
The deadlock has raised concerns that political dysfunction in Washington will prevent any major steps to spur hiring before the November 2012 elections.
Obama sought to step up pressure on Republicans as his fellow Democrats prepared efforts to push his jobs package piece by piece through Congress.
At Asheville’s one-runway airport, he also touted a proposal to spend tens of billions of dollars repairing and modernizing the country’s air and ground transportation networks.
Republicans have shown little enthusiasm for either idea, though they have expressed a willingness to consider some other components of Obama’s plan.
Obama said, “We can’t do nothing. Too many folks out there are hurting right now for us to do nothing.”
The White House billed Obama’s trip — his second bus tour through small-town America since he visited the rural Midwest in August — as a chance to reconnect with ordinary citizens.
While Obama’s aides insist his journey is about jobs, not politics, his itinerary takes in two traditionally conservative states he won in the 2008 presidential election but which polls show he is in danger of losing in his bid for a second term.
The bus trip takes place well over a year before the election during a period when incumbent presidents generally are spending their campaign time raising money.
Obama’s focus on retail politicking at this stage suggests he realizes he has a tough road in 2012 and has to start early to hammer home his message that Republicans are refusing to join with him in finding ways to fix the U.S. economy.
Though bus tours have become a ritual of presidential campaigning, the White House said Obama’s trip was official business with all costs covered by taxpayers, not from his campaign coffers.
His visits to Virginia and North Carolina come against the backdrop of protests against Wall Street excess and economic inequality that began weeks ago in New York and have spread to other cities, inspiring global “Day of Rage” demonstrations against the world financial system over the weekend.
Polls show taxing the rich resonates not only with anti-Wall Street protesters but with many middle-class voters struggling to stay afloat financially in a difficult economy.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Steve Holland; Editing by Deborah Charles and Will Dunham)
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