RICHMOND — A day after imploring Congress to pass his jobs bill, President Obama launched a strategic campaign to win public support with an impassioned call to thousands of college students to help him convince Congress that “the time for action is now.”
Obama made the first in what the White House expects to be a series of appearances across the country during which the president will explain his $447 billion jobs plan and try to gain the upper hand in his fight with Republican rivals.
Speaking before an estimated crowd of about 8,000 at the University of Richmond, the president hammered away on a refrain that he used before Congress — “pass this bill now” — as he made the case that his administration is addressing the jobs crisis with urgency even as the rest of Washington dithers.
“The next election is 14 months away. We cannot wait,” Obama told the audience of enthusiastic young people, who interrupted him with shouts of “we love you!”
“The American people do not have the luxury of waiting the next 14 months for action,” Obama continued. “Some live paycheck-to-paycheck, week-to-week, day-to-day. Now is not the time for people in Washington to worry about their jobs; it’s time for them to worry about your jobs. It’s time to put America back to work. It’s time to act.”
Obama’s renewed urgency comes as the economy has slowed to a near halt. The Labor Department reported that no net jobs were created in August, and the unemployment rate remains high at 9.1 percent.
The president scheduled Friday’s appearance in the heart of the congressional district of one of his arch-nemeses, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who battled Obama fiercely during the protracted debt ceiling debate this summer.
As Obama began speaking, Cantor wrote on his Twitter account: “I welcome the President to Richmond. I hope he hears the same message I do back home, it is time for Washington to get out of the way.”
In some strategic counter-programming, Cantor is scheduled to appear at a Richmond heavy building materials company Friday afternoon to talk to workers about jobs.
The White House viewed Obama’s speech Thursday and the appearance in Richmond as the first steps in a fall campaign to force congressional Republicans to the bargaining table or risk being painted as a party that is doing nothing to help struggling Americans, according to Democratic sources familiar with the administration’s strategy.
The president is scheduling a series of events across the country, including trips to Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday, and the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina on Wednesday, to continue to sell the jobs bill.
Obama will make clear, if Republicans are unwilling to support him, that the GOP apparently believes that the economic crisis is not serious enough to warrant government action to fix it, the Democratic sources said.
The strategy expands the message Obama has been airing over the past month. But it won’t be an easy sell. Republicans have countered by blaming Obama’s policies for the struggling economy and suggesting that a new round of government spending will not solve the unemployment crisis.
In Richmond, however, Obama found an enthusiastic audience. Thousands of students from several area schools, including Virginia Commonwealth University, lined up hours ahead of time to file into the Robins Center, the basketball arena with NCAA banners hanging in the rafters. Before Obama arrived, students performed the wave and chanted, “O-ba-ma!”
Obama told the Richmond crowd that he was glad to hear some Republicans express willingness to consider some of his jobs proposals. When some in the crowd gave cat-calls, Obama said: “I know sometimes folks think they’ve used up all their benefit of the doubt, but I’m an eternal optimist. … I believe if you just stay at it long enough, eventually, after they’ve exhausted all the options, folks will do the right thing.”
The students cheered.
“But we’ve got to give them a little help to do the right thing,” Obama continued. “So I ask all of you to lift up your voices, not just here in Richmond, but anyone watching, following online: call, e-mail, send a letter, tweet, facebook, send a carrier pigeon. Tell your congressperson the time for gridlock is over. The time for action is now. Pass this bill!”
After the president’s speech Thursday, Republicans criticized Obama for failing to be specific about how the administration expects to pay for the proposals, saying the president appeared to dump that question back onto Congress. Obama has said he will present a plan Sept. 19 on how to pay for the proposals. White House aides have said he plans to use deficit reduction savings in future years to pay for the investments now.
But Cantor also bristled at the president’s tone. “I did not think his approach of take-it-or-leave-it, my-way-or-the-highway is appropriate,” he said. “We need to come together and find areas where we can agree.”
There were some ideas in Obama’s plan that Cantor said Republicans might be willing to look at more closely, including tax relief for small businesses and streamlining spending requirements for states on infrastructure projects. But he warned that Obama’s plan to spend hundreds of billions of dollars was a mistake.
“My objection was his message of, ‘Take my plan as is or I’m taking it to the American people,’ ” Cantor said. “We’re trying to transcend differences.”