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In Indianapolis, Obama pushes his budget plan

Obama took his budget pitch on the road Friday. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – President Obama made the case Friday for his budget proposal, which includes boosting some taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations, with an appeal that mixed populism with calls for bipartisanship.

“My number one priority is making sure the American peoples’ wages and incomes are going up, because right now the stock market has gone up [and] corporate profits are at an all time high,” Obama said. “Corporate balance sheets have never been better in history.”

The setting for Obama’s Friday speech here was a community college and reflected a pattern that has held for virtually all of the president’s speeches this year, which have focused almost exclusively on Republican-dominated states. Last month Obama visited Idaho and Kansas. On Friday, he alighted for a few hours in Indiana.

The choices highlight the steep challenge the president faces to muster some bipartisan support for his budget plan, which would increase government spending without significantly boosting the nation’s debt.

The brief visit to Indiana's Ivy Tech Community College was also an effort to rekindle some of the idealism which marked his first presidential campaign and quickly faded: the idea that his presidency could rise above Washington’s increasingly partisan politics. “When it comes to elections [in Indiana], I am batting .500,” Obama said. “I will acknowledge last time I kind of got smoked in Indiana, but that’s okay. That’s exactly why I wanted to come back.”

Obama was introduced by Indianapolis’s Republican mayor and by former Sen. Richard Lugar, who accompanied Obama on his first overseas trip as a senator. To make his case for more comity, Obama quoted his former Republican colleague: “The other party is also patriotic and may have good ideas.”

The president’s budget proposal, however, remains a heavy lift in Congress. Even some of his proposals which are modeled on programs initiated by Republicans, such as a plan to make the first two years of community college free, haven’t drawn much bipartisan backing.

The president’s community college proposal is similar to a program started by Tennessee’s governor. Republican lawmakers have said that the plan, which would cost $50-$60 billion over the next decade, would pump taxpayer money on a system that needs reform. Many community colleges, say critics, have low graduation rates or curriculums that don’t always give students the skills they need to succeed in the job market.

Instead of pushing more students into the system, Republicans have said the president should first focus on making it more efficient and effective.

A White House spokesman said that the administration had been in touch with lawmakers about the president’s budget proposal, but could not say if there were any specific Republican members of Congress that were backing it.

Obama acknowledged the Republican complaints that community colleges needed to become more responsive to the needs of businesses. “We've got to have some accountability in this overall process,” he said.

Obama’s remarks in the Republican-dominated state also came with heavy dose of economic populism. He talked about closing tax loopholes on the inheritances of wealthy Americans and $2 trillion in corporate profits currently being held overseas. “I don’t know why the folks who are most able to pay [taxes] should be able to avoid them,” Obama said.

The president spoke on a day in which the Labor Department reported that employers added 257,000 jobs in December, another strong month for a surging economy that Obama has touted as evidence that the government can now afford to break through spending caps on the federal budget. More government spending on infrastructure, education, child care and housing would boost wages for average workers and ensure the economy’s gains are shared more widely.

“At time when the economy is finally picking up steam, we've got to work twice as hard in Washington,” Obama said.

After the speech the president took questions from the audience, which consisted largely of community college students. They asked him about military veteran education benefits, whether his budget had any proposals that could help with the high costs of textbooks -- and the state of his basketball game.

“I’ll be honest with you, my game is a little broke,” Obama said. “I’ve been a little busy.”