By Anne E. Kornblut and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 4:36 AM
RICHMOND - President Obama walked into the back yard of one of his chief congressional critics on Wednesday to continue his blunt assault on Republicans and their policies.
"I know your congressman here I think has strong ideas about what he says he wants to do," Obama said. But, he said, the math behind the Republican proposal - which includes keeping the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans while balancing the budget - "doesn't add up."
Taking the argument directly to Cantor and other Republican leaders is part of a new, aggressive approach for Obama, who has been criticized by members of his party for being too cautious and concerned about offending his opponents.
With five weeks until the midterm elections, Obama seems to be shedding some of that caution in favor of a sharper tone aimed at Republicans - and even Democrats.
On Monday, the president dismissed Republicans as "not serious." At a rally before more than 20,000 people in Madison, Wis., on Tuesday night, Obama accused the GOP of working to "hoodwink a whole bunch of folks all across the country" about his governmental philosophy. And he twice sarcastically dismissed Republicans as not "interested in facts."
Some of Obama's recent moves, such as a trio of casual, backyard-style events this week, are part of a tactical plan to put a stronger focus on his Republican rivals and demonstrate what their leadership would look like if they won control of Congress. Earlier this month, Obama gave an economic speech in Cleveland in direct response to an address there by House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who would probably become speaker if the House switched hands.
Obama has also chided members of his own party for going wobbly before the election. In an interview in Rolling Stone published this week, he told Democrats that it is time to "wake up" and pay attention to the administration's accomplishments.
In Madison, Obama seemed at times like he was testing new material, making wry remarks and tossing in a little sarcasm, as if he were letting the largely college-age audience in on a joke.
At one point, responding to criticism that he hasn't done enough yet, he said, "I've only been here two years, guys. . . . I figured I needed to have something to do for the next couple of years."
At another point, he told Democrats upset at a perceived lack of progress to think of the patience of onetime slaves. "You know, the slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs, they weren't sure when slavery would end, but they understood it was going to end," he said.
The question for Obama is whether his recent push is too late, coming after many voters - who increasingly say in polls that they are unhappy with his performance - have started to tune him out.
After Wednesday's event, Cantor accused Obama of being "out of touch" and trying to "demonize success."
"President Obama may want to pretend otherwise, but the stale message that he brought to Virginia today won't help a single person get back to work, and that's where my focus is," Cantor said in a statement.
He has slammed Obama for wanting to end Bush-era tax cuts on household income above $250,000 a year and has called on Congress to vote on the cuts, arguing that the top tax bracket includes some small businesses.
Although White House officials would not say that the Richmond trip was planned to get under Cantor's skin, they acknowledged its symbolic importance.
"What better place to draw a contrast with Republican plans to drive up deficits and go back to their old policies than right in this district?" deputy press secretary Bill Burton said.
Two years ago, by sparking a wave of Democratic enthusiasm and winning over independents, Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia in four decades. But just a year later, Virginia elected Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell by more than 17 percentage points.
McDonnell ran against Obama's economic policies, and his campaign fed on voter disillusionment with the national Democratic agenda, while Democrat R. Creigh Deeds shied from associating himself with the president.
Republicans began countering - "prebutting," in political parlance - Obama's visit on Tuesday. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), reelected last year alongside McDonnell and dubbed the state's chief job-creation officer by the governor, held a news conference at a Richmond area plumbing company to blast the president's economic policies as "anti-business."
He called on Obama to declare the stimulus bill a failure, rein in the Environmental Protection Agency and renounce support for a bill to regulate greenhouse gases through a "cap and trade" system for energy producers.
"He's still desperately trying to get his message across to the American people and hope they buy it," Bolling said in an interview.
Cantor, meanwhile, posted a statement on YouTube warning that 20,000 jobs in Virginia would be lost if a variety of Obama's policies took effect.
While Cantor's Democratic opponent is not considered a serious challenger, by sending Obama to the state capital, the White House ensured that his event would receive local news coverage throughout the state.
That included in nearby Charlottesville, where first-term Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello has been cast nationally as emblematic of the kind of congressman who won in 2008 on Obama's coattails and may now be ousted. Polls show him trailing Republican state Sen. Robert Hurt (R-Pittsylvania).
It also included the southeastern district held by Glenn Nye, another first-term Democrat in danger of losing his seat.
At the Richmond event, Obama fielded several questions about the tone of Washington, including one from Scott Turner, who owns a tree-care business.
"Is there hope for us returning to civility in our discourse and a healthy legislative process, something where I can trust that when I strap on my boots tomorrow morning, I know that you guys have it under control?" he asked.
Obama responded by again attacking Republicans, saying they decided that it was to their benefit to oppose his policies and ensure that he took all the blame for the lagging economy, rather than working with him to fix it.
"The only way this is going to change is if the same folks who supported me in 2008 - not just Democrats, but independents and Republicans who want to see the country move forward - if they don't sit on the sidelines, they don't give up," he said.