By Nia-Malika Henderson
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; 3:21 AM
With just 50 days to go before the midterm elections, President Obama took his economic message to a Virginia suburb, telling a local family and small-business owners that the policies his administration has put in place will lead to a more solid future.
"I have never been more confident about the future of our economy if we stay on track and we deal with some of these long-standing problems that we haven't dealt with in decades," he said, his sleeves rolled up in the afternoon sun. "If we do those things, there's no reason we can't succeed."
In the fenced in back yard of John and Nicole Armstrong's one-story brick house in Fairfax, Obama touted his 19-month record -- including overhauls in health care and financial regulation. Borrowing from his campaign playbook, Obama staged the event before an intimate and partisan audience of about 30 people.
Over the last week, in large rallies and during a rare news conference, Obama has stepped up his public focus on the economy and has hammered Republicans for obstructing his agenda. At this outdoor event, derided by Republicans as a "garden party," Obama fielded softball questions on topics such as stem cells, historic preservation and small-business lending.
Larry Poltavtsev, chief executive of Target Labs, a clean-energy and technology company with 94 employees, asked about easing lending for small businesses, a key priority for the Obama administration and congressional Democrats. The administration's bill, which has passed the House, would create a $30 billion fund for community banks to extend credit and offer $12 billion in tax breaks. Obama has accused Republicans of holding the bill hostage.
"You hear some of my friends on the Republican side complaining that we'd get more business investment if we had more certainty, where here is an example where we can get some certainty right away," he said. "Pass this bill; I will sign it into law the day after it is passed or the day it is passed, and then right away I think a lot of small businesses around the country will feel more comfortable about hiring and making investments."
As in recent speeches, Obama again singled out House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), whom the White House has elevated as the face of the Republican party in the last weeks over the fate of the Bush-era tax cuts. The legislation has dominated debate and become a key campaign issue on both sides of the aisle.
On the administration's plan not to extend the tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, Obama said, "We could that done this week, but we are still in this wrestling match with John Boehner and [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell."
On Sunday, however, Boehner appeared to back down on the issue when he said he would support the extension of the tax cuts for the middle class, even if it meant eliminating a tax cut on upper-income earners.
This area, part of the nation's most affluent congressional district, went heavily for Obama in 2008, yet freshman Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who attended the backyard session and got several shout-outs from Obama, is in a tight rematch against tea party-backed Republican Keith S. Fimian. Connolly has said he backs the temporary extension of all tax cuts.
"The recovery is too fragile; it can't take a jolt," he said after the president left the event. He said that he and a handful of other Democrats are sending a letter to the House leadership offering their position. "Right now its the wrong time for us to be raising taxes."
Obama told the crowd that Republicans have a different set of priorities on the economy.
"We're going to continue to have some of these battles over the next several years, and I think that frankly, how state and local governments are able to deal with these budget challenges next year is in part going to depend on whether the people who are making the decisions are Jim [Moran] and Gerry [Connolly] or rather they are John Boehner, because they just have a different set of priorities," he said. "And I don't know about you, but I like these guys making these decisions more than the other folks, but that's just my unbiased opinion."
Asked about working with a new Congress to shore up the economy, Obama said that he "didn't believe in wholesale government intervention in the economy." He said that the auto bailouts and stimulus plans were exceptions in response to emergency situations.
"At the beginning of the crises, for the government not to intervene when the financial system was on the verge of meltdown and we were shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs a month, and the credit markets had just frozen completely, for us not to intervene in that situation would have been simply irresponsible," he said. "And I don't know an economist, Democrat or Republican, who would suggest otherwise."
Obama said that he sees common ground with Republicans in reigning in spending.
"Right now, our focus has to be jobs, jobs, jobs, and encouraging business investment," he said. "But in the middle and the long term, we do have a very real problem with debt and deficits."
In all, Obama took seven questions, and after the hour-long session, residents pressed up against a white picket fence and said goodbye to a smiling and waving president.