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Obama discusses his Christian faith, chides Republicans in backyard chat

Joe Biden's exhortation to Democrats to "stop whining" isn't the first time administration officials have criticized their own base.

In response to a question about immigration, he said he supports comprehensive reform that would secure the borders and "make sure our immigration system is orderly and fair," while also providing "a pathway to citizenship" for illegal immigrants already in the country, as long as they pay a fine and back taxes, learn English and do not have a criminal record.

But he said the issue now is "getting demagogued" by Republicans who are trying to "score political points." In the Senate, 11 Republicans who once supported immigration reform, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), have "all reversed themselves," Obama said, "and I don't have 60 Democrats" to form a filibuster-proof majority in support of a bill.

The event at the home of Andy Cavalier, a retired Marine staff sergeant and disabled veteran, and Etta Cavalier, a public school educator for 36 years, was part of a whirlwind cross-country trip this week in which Obama is venturing into the yards of "real people" to push out several messages on the economy. His backyard visits were each designed to feature specific topics: education in Albuquerque on Tuesday; fighting for the middle class in Des Moines on Wednesday; tax cuts and deficits in Richmond later that day.

In an effort to galvanize younger voters ahead of the Nov. 2 midterm elections, Obama is holding a campaign-style rally Tuesday night at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He chastised apathetic Democratic voters in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, saying it would be "inexcusable" and "irresponsible" if they sat out the elections.

"We have to get folks off the sidelines," Obama told the magazine in an interview being published Friday. "People need to shake off this lethargy. People need to buck up."

He said, "It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election."

The common theme at all the stops, administration officials said, is emphasizing the danger that the White House believes Republicans would pose to the nation's economic health if they captured control of Congress in the midterm elections. Obama planned to tee off on the recently unveiled GOP "Pledge to America" and discuss "why he thinks the direction the Republicans are pushing to go would be irresponsible, would be a mistake," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said.

"Let's be clear: If you like deficits, you will love the Republican plan," Pfeiffer said Monday, in describing the Richmond stop. "The president and the Democrats want to keep going forward, and the Republicans want to return to the policies that got us into this mess to begin with."

Another big difference between the parties, White House officials hope, will be the increasingly populist message of the president - in contrast with a Republican message that they say should remind people of the previous decade, when big businesses flourished.

This is where the backyard backdrop comes in.

It is the rare venue that allows Obama to take off his suit jacket and sit face-to-face with regular voters - without looking explicitly like he is at a campaign event (as similar town hall meetings often do). On his four-state tour this week, only one stop - a campus rally in Madison on Tuesday evening - is officially political. The rest were designed as presidential stops and were not expected to include overt stumping for candidates.

The backyard setting also puts a name and face on the policies at hand - a time-honored presidential ritual, reminiscent of the individuals President Ronald Reagan first installed in the presidential box during the State of the Union address, or the "tax families" President George W. Bush invoked a decade ago as he sold the tax cuts now about to expire.

For Obama, though, there is an additional selling point to the backyard events: He simply likes them. He "likes getting out of the White House," one adviser said wryly, noting that "likes" was an understatement. And the gatherings are reminiscent of events Obama did in kitchens and, occasionally, in back yards during the 2008 campaign, a vibe he is trying to recapture with just five weeks until the midterm elections.

"This has proven an effective way to continue the conversation he's been having with the American people since he began running for president," said deputy press secretary Bill Burton as he traveled with Obama to New Mexico on Monday. "And where better to do it than right in America's back yards."

The backyard parties have been overwhelmingly friendly toward Obama, even if the settings have not always looked as relaxed as intended, with large clusters of guests in suits (not to mention camera crews in tow). Still, White House officials said, they consider it as authentic a setting as any. "It's not a screened crowd. It's not a handpicked crowd," Pfeiffer said.

Branigin reported from Washington.

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