President Obama sold his jobs plan Tuesday in Ohio, the quintessential swing state, urging a friendly audience to “call, tweet, e-mail, fax and visit” Congress to urge members to pass his program. The president was, in turn, fiery, populist and partisan.
“So my question for Congress is, ‘What on earth are we waiting for?’” Obama shouted to an audience of students, teachers, administrators and construction workers at the Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School in Columbus.
Amid chants of “pass this bill,” Obama said, “Instead of just talking about helping America’s job creators, let’s do something to help America’s job creators. Let’s pass this bill.”
Obama’s urgency reflects both the country’s dire economic straits and his own political peril. His appearance Tuesday under a sunny late-summer sky had the distinct feel of a campaign event. He spoke without a jacket, his tie fluttering in the breeze, and the small but vocal audience picked up his rhetorical cues at various points in the remarks to support his message.
He suggested that Republicans in Congress worked harder to pass tax cuts for the richest Americans than for middle-class families, and he used some of the symbols he has drawn on before to illustrate the nation’s economic imbalance.
“We’ve got to decide what our priorities are,” Obama said. “Do you want to keep tax loopholes for big oil companies? Or do you want to have money to pay for renovations at schools like Fort Hayes?”
His visit to Ohio, a highly competitive state he won in 2008, coincided with the release Tuesday of a Census Bureau report showing that the U.S. poverty rate has risen to its highest level in more than half a century. The number of Americans living in poverty grew by 2.6 million from 2009 to 2010 to 46.2 million, or 15.1 percent of the population.
His stop in Columbus, designed to showcase the element of his jobs plan that would renovate 35,000 public schools, is part of a road-show strategy to secure congressional approval and to define his political position in the 2012 campaign.
He has warned Congress to set aside “political games” and pass the American Jobs Act, as he did again Tuesday, or he will remind voters during the coming campaign season of its inaction.
Traveling Tuesday aboard Air Force One to Ohio, Jay Carney, the president’s press secretary, told reporters, “Congress will have a lot of explaining to do” if nothing is done to help create jobs.
But congressional Republicans have reacted coolly to Obama’s $447 billion legislative proposal — a mix of tax cuts, public works spending, money for state and local governments, an extension of unemployment benefits, and other measures to spur the economy and encourage employment.
The package would be paid for largely through tax increases on wealthy individuals and families making more than $250,000 a year.
Specifically, Republicans in the House and Senate have criticized the plan’s reliance on those tax increases, which they believe would undermine the halting economic recovery and contradict Obama’s contention that the bill is bipartisan in spirit.
On Tuesday, Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the Republican leader, said the proposal’s details “only reinforce the impression that this was largely a political exercise.”
“For one, they undermine the president’s claim that it’s a bipartisan proposal because much of what he’s proposing has already been rejected on a bipartisan basis,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.
“Claiming the bill is bipartisan may sound good on the campaign trail,” he continued. “But surely the president could come up with some proposals that both sides hadn’t rejected already.”
The White House says Obama’s proposal contains $25 billion for school renovations and modernization, including $985.5 million for Ohio elementary, middle and high school campuses. Those projects, the White House estimates, would “support” up to 12,800 jobs.
The Fort Hayes campus was renovated several years ago, and Obama said the project employed 250 construction workers. The school also has a vocational program for contractors and builders, among other professions.
Before his speech, Obama visited a few classrooms, accompanied by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
In a graphic design class, Obama told the hushed room that “you don’t have to be that quiet” as he made his way through it. He introduced himself to each of the students, and complimented their work.
His speech was far less subdued and offered a preview of the campaign, for the jobs bill and the presidency, ahead.
Obama called out congressional Republicans, whom he said he had read were reluctant to support the jobs measure because it would “give me a win.”
“They’ve supported this stuff in the past, but they’re thinking this time they won’t because Obama is supporting it,” he said. “Giving me a win? This isn’t about giving me a win. This is about giving the American people a win.”