SCRANTON, Pa. — President Obama, steeling for another budget battle when Congress returns to work in September, promised Friday to stand up to Republican lawmakers and warned that their threats of a government shutdown would spark a new financial crisis.
Obama wrapped up his two-day bus tour with a visit to Scranton, the blue-collar hometown of Vice President Biden, where the two men staged a joint campaign-style rally and sought to reiterate their claim of being protectors of the middle class.
“I have not seen a policy coming out of them that would actually help ordinary folks,” Obama said, referencing congressional Republicans. “We can’t afford the usual Washington circus of distractions and political posturing and special interests and phony scandals. We can’t afford that. We’ve got too much work to do.”
In the fall, Congress will confront deadlines for continuing to fund the federal government and increasing the government’s debt limit. Many Republican lawmakers are threatening a government shutdown over funding of Obama’s signature health-care law.
“Instead of focusing on what’s helping middle-class families succeed, they’re spending time arguing about whether or not we should be paying the bills for things we already spent money on,” Obama said. “They’re threatening to shut down the government and have another financial crisis.”
Biden, a proud native of this hardscrabble industrial city, beamed and drew loud applause when he said, “Mr. President, the American dream is alive and well in Scranton.”
Biden told students and supporters packed into a gymnasium at Lackawanna College that he grew up about 20 blocks away in a neighborhood that he said “formed everything I believe — my absolute conviction that if you give ordinary folks a fighting chance, they can and will do extraordinary things.”
Back in Washington, he added, White House economists like to measure the middle class with statistics. “The middle class isn’t a number,” Biden said. “It’s about understanding in your bones.”
Friday afternoon’s Scranton event had a distinct campaign feel. Obama took a swipe — rare these days — at Mitt Romney, his defeated 2012 Republican opponent. The president suggested his health-care law should have bipartisan support because “it used to be a Republican idea. There’s a governor of Massachusetts who set it up.” Someone in the crowd was heard responding by shouting “Romnesia,” a slogan Obama used in last year’s campaign.
Obama noted that Friday was the fifth anniversary of Biden’s selection as his running mate and used the occasion to shower praise on the veep. The joint appearance comes as Biden stirs speculation, with a visit to Iowa next month, that he might run for president in 2016.
“I love this guy,” Obama said in a moment Biden’s would-be campaign ad-makers couldn’t have choreographed any better. “He’s got heart, and he cares about people and he’s going to fight. . . . He’s got some Scranton in him.”
This was Biden’s first public appearance this week, after spending several days with his son, Beau, the attorney general of Delaware, who underwent testing at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “My son Beau’s fine,” Biden said. “He’s anxious to get back to work.”
Obama spent his two-day bus tour through New York and Pennsylvania touting a new plan to make colleges more affordable. His administration is creating a national ratings system of colleges, using such measures as tuition and student debt.
Obama wants eventually to allocate federal financial aid based on the ratings, which he thinks would give schools an incentive to keep costs down. But that would require congressional approval — a prospect that drew boos from the crowd in Scranton.
Earlier Friday at a town hall meeting in Binghamton, N.Y., Obama had harsh words for Republicans in Congress. He said they were “penny wise and pound foolish” for proposing additional spending cuts on education and science programs.
He said they should instead focus on “the pocketbook, bread-and-butter” issues that can grow the economy. Noting that the deficit is on a downward trajectory and has been cut in half since 2009, Obama said, “We don’t have an urgent deficit crisis. The only crisis we have is one that’s manufactured in Washington — and it’s ideological.”
As he fielded questions from students and faculty members at Binghamton University, Obama pitched a few other causes, too. The Harvard Law School graduate, who formerly taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, waded into an academic debate over the length of the curricula at U.S. law schools, saying it should be cut from three years to two years.
“This is probably controversial to say, but, what the heck, I’m in my second term, so I can say it,” Obama said. “I believe, for example, that law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years.”
Obama added, “In the first two years, young people are learning in the classroom. The third year, they’d be better off clerking or practicing in a firm even if they weren’t getting paid that much, but that step alone would reduce the costs for the student.”