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ELYRIA, Ohio (AP) – A combative President Barack Obama exhorted Congress Friday to pass a new job-creation bill, taking a populist appeal to America’s recession-racked Rust Belt in hopes of recapturing the energy of his campaign and moving his presidency beyond this week’s blows.
Obama weaved angry us-against-them rhetoric throughout the day, telling a town hall audience that he “will never stop fighting” for an economy that works for the hard-working, not just those already well off.
“This isn’t about me. This is about you,” Obama shouted in a rousing defense of his presidency and not-so-subtle slaps at his critics. “I think that I win when you win. That’s how I think about it.”
He said a jobs bill emerging in Congress must include tax breaks for small business hiring and for people trying to make their homes more energy efficient – two proposals he wasn’t able to get into a bill the House passed last month. And he used the word “fight” or some variation of it well over a dozen times. The House-passed $174 billion stimulus package faces a stern test in the Senate, in part because it is financed with deficit spending.
With the town hall meeting, tours of a factory and classroom, an impromptu diner stop and even the lack of a necktie, Obama’s day had the feel of one from his campaign. Followed by campaign videographers, he grinned, bantered and joked through the snowy scenery, a far cry from his more somber demeanor of late.
The upset win by Republican Scott Brown in a special Massachusetts Senate election this week – a victory spurred in large part by an anti-establishment sentiment – badly stung the White House and prompted awareness that neither Obama’s agenda nor the electoral prospects for fellow Democrats this fall can be taken for granted.
So in his at the town hall meeting at Lorain County Community College near Cleveland, the president assailed Washington and Wall Street alike, hoping to connect with public’s frustration and position himself as the solution – not the problem.
He strongly defended unpopular actions he has taken to bail out banks and insurers and to rescue automakers from collapse. Such measures have not gone over well in many quarters, derided as expanding government and swelling the deficit while many on Main Street still walk unemployment lines.
Obama said propping up the financial industry was as much about regular Americans as wealthy bankers. “If the financial system had gone down, it would have taken the entire economy and millions more families and businesses with it,” he argued.
Similarly, allowing GM and Chrysler to go under might have satisfied calls to force businesses to reap the consequences of bad decisions.
But he also said, “Hundreds of thousands of Americans would have been hurt, not just at those companies, but at auto suppliers and other companies and dealers here in Michigan – here in Ohio – up in Michigan and all across this country.”
Obama made a repeated point of criticizing Washington, too – saying that one can get a “pretty warped view of things” from inside the capital city, targeting special interest power and mocking the popular parlor game of handicapping his presidency.
“Is he weakened? Oh, how is he going to survive this?” he joked. “That’s what they do.”
He sought to demonstrate understanding for the economic uncertainty that lingers in many American homes and businesses despite some economic improvements.
“Folks have seen jobs you thought would last forever disappear. You’ve seen plants close and businesses shut down,” Obama said.
He promised to help. “I won’t stop fighting for you,” he said. “I’ll take my lumps.”
He acknowledged “we got a little bit of a buzz saw” on health care overhaul. But he said his pursuit of sweeping overhaul was – and still is – the right thing to do even amid war and economic crisis. “I am not going to walk away just because it’s hard.”
The choice of Ohio was no accident.
It has unemployment slightly higher than the national average, with the state reporting before Obama landed in Cleveland that its rate had ticked upward in December, to 10.9 percent from 10.6 percent the month before. The national rate was 10 percent in December.
Ohio is also a political must-win – a state Obama won in 2008 and probably must win again if he is to get a second White House term.
Across the street from the community college were groups of anti-Obama protesters.
“He’s done a lot, but they are all negative things,” said Ray Angell, 65, of Twinsburg, Ohio, a conservative active in the anti-tax Tea Party movement, mentioning the stimulus package and climate change proposals.
Associated Press writer Thomas J. Sheeran contributed to this story.