By Anne E. Kornblut and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 4:07 PM
ALBUQUERQUE - President Obama, speaking to middle-class Americans on Tuesday in his latest round of "backyard chats," opened up to a questioner about his Christian faith, as he touted his administration's record on education and the economy while warning that a Republican victory in upcoming elections would jeopardize progress in both areas.
Speaking to neighborhood residents in the yard of an Albuquerque family, Obama said the Nov. 2 elections "offer a choice on a whole range of different issues." But he said the Republicans' top priority is retaining $700 billion worth of tax breaks to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, money that "we'd have to borrow . . . because we don't have it" - likely from countries such as China and Saudi Arabia.
He charged that Republicans "don't really have good answers" on how to pay for their economic plans. One of their proposals, he said, is to cut education spending by 20 percent, eliminating about 200,000 Head Start programs and reducing student aid for college for about 8 million students. He urged his listeners to think about "who's going to prioritize our young people" when they go to the polls in November.
In response to a woman who asked him why he is a Christian, Obama also offered some rare personal comments about his faith.
"I'm a Christian by choice," he said, noting that his mother "didn't raise me in the church" and that his family did not attend church every week.
"So I came to my Christian faith later in life," Obama said. "And it was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead - being my brothers' and sisters' keeper, treating others as they would treat me."
He said he also reached an "understanding that . . . Jesus Christ dying for my sins spoke to the humility we all have to have as human beings, that we're sinful and we're flawed and we make mistakes, and that, you know, we achieve salvation through the grace of God."
He continued: "But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people and do our best to help them find . . . their own grace. And so that's what I strive to do. That's what I pray to do every day. I think my public service is part of that effort to express my Christian faith."
Obama emphasized, however, that "as president of the United States, I'm also somebody who deeply believes that part of the bedrock strength of this country is that it embraces people of many faiths and of no faith." While the United States "is still predominantly Christian," he said, "we have Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, and . . . their own path to grace is one that we have to revere and respect as much as our own."
The comments came a month after the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that 18 percent of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim, up from 11 percent who held that view in March 2009. Only 34 percent of those surveyed said Obama is a Christian, down from 48 percent who said that last year. The largest proportion, 43 percent, said they did not know what Obama's religion was.
The White House has sought to counter those views, saying Obama is a Christian who prays every day. But Tuesday's event marked the first time that Obama has spoken publicly in such personal terms about his religion.
Although the gathering was not billed as a political event, Obama repeatedly took the opportunity to criticize the Republican agenda and urge people to back Democrats' priorities at the polls.
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.