Obama Says Voters Must Press Congress to Act on Jobs Plan

Obama Says Voters Must Press Congress to Act on Jobs Plan
President Barack Obama greets members of Congress as he arrives to make a speech at the Capitol in Washington on Sept. 8, 2011. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama campaigned to sell his $447 billion jobs proposal, telling voters in the battleground state of Virginia that they deserve action on the economy and encouraging them to pressure lawmakers.

“To make it happen, every one of your voices can make a difference,” the president said today at the University of Richmond, which is in the district of Representative Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican and a frequent critic of the president’s economic policies. “Tell your congressperson, the time for gridlock and games is over.”

In a speech to a joint session of Congress last night, Obama proposed a mix of tax cuts, infrastructure spending and aid to states and local governments that he said would spur job growth, which stalled last month, and help bring down an unemployment rate that has hovered at or above 9 percent for more than two years.

Tax cuts account for more than half the dollar value of the stimulus, with the biggest portion going to slicing in half the 6.2 percent payroll tax for workers and small businesses. Administration officials said they’re counting on that to draw support from Republicans in Congress, and Obama repeatedly said he was putting forward ideas that in the past have had support from both parties.

Common Ground

Cantor said the tax breaks focused on small businesses may be an area of common ground.

“That’s something we Republicans have been advocating for quite some time now,” Cantor said in a Bloomberg Television interview last night. Cantor planned a separate appearance in Richmond after Obama left town.

Still, Cantor and other Republicans expressed skepticism about Obama’s spending proposals, including $105 billion for highways, transit systems and airports and modernizing schools and $35 billion to help states hire emergency workers and laid-off teachers.

Cantor drew a comparison with the $825 billion stimulus package in 2009, which has been a target of Republican criticism and unpopular with voters.

“I’m worried that once again we would find ourselves in a spending binge,” he said.

Response to Obama

Cantor joined with House Speaker John Boehner and two other members of the House Republican leadership in a letter to Obama today seeking a legislative proposal from the White House that can be analyzed by the Congressional Budget Office. They signaled some items in the package may be broken out for individual consideration and they may insert their own bills dealing with job creation.

The Republican leaders also said they will continue to insist on stand-alone votes on free trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea. The accords have been held up while the administration negotiates passage of legislation to extend aid to workers who lose their jobs to overseas competitors.

“We share your desire for bipartisan cooperation, and assume that your ideas were not presented as an all-or-nothing proposition, but rather in anticipation that the Congress may also have equally as effective proposals to offer for consideration,” the leaders wrote.

In Richmond today, Obama sought to keep up pressure for a bipartisan deal, lauding Cantor as being among Republicans who “see room for us to work together. They said that they’re open to some of the proposals.”

Skeptical Audience

Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, said Congress is unlikely to pass much of Obama’s package and that Americans are likely to be more skeptical than when he pitched the 2009 stimulus.

“Fairly or unfairly, a lot of Americans don’t see the stimulus as a success,” he said. “I suspect many viewers reacted to the speech with the thought, ‘Been there, done that.’”

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index slid 2.9 percent, wiping out its weekly gain. The gauge is down more than 15 percent from an almost three-year high at the end of April. Yields on Treasury 10-year notes fell as low as 1.89 percent.

Campaign for Support

Today’s event in Richmond is part of a campaign by Obama to drum up support for his plan from voters to put pressure on lawmakers to act. He vowed last night “to take that message to every corner of this country.”

The stop also fits with his strategy to win re-election; Obama won Virginia in 2008, the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since 1964. He’ll continue Sept. 13 in Ohio, a swing state that also is important to Obama’s re-election fortunes. Ohio is the home state of Boehner. The following day he’ll go to the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina.

“If he’s going to win any state in the South, his best shot is going to be Virginia,” Tracy Roof, an associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond, said in a telephone interview.

“Obama wants to come into the backyard of one of the most prominent Republicans and make a statement” challenging Congress, Garren Shipley, a spokesman for the Virginia Republican Party, in a telephone interview Sept. 7. “The president hasn’t been one to back off.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney denied there was a political component of the administration’s choices of venues.

Swing State

Since Obama won Virginia in 2008, the state elected a Republican governor, gave Republicans control of the state House in Richmond and added three Republicans in the U.S. House in the 2010 midterm elections. The state is rated a tossup for the 2012 presidential election, according to the website RealClearPolitics.

The state is now “leaning Republican,” said Toni-Michelle C. Travis, a professor who studies state politics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The state’s economy is healthier than most, she said. The unemployment rate was 6.1 percent in July compared with 9.1 for the U.S., and Republican Governor Robert F. McDonnell can point to a balanced budget.

Turning out young voters will be critical for Obama. “I think he can do that but it requires a very tight campaign organization” and “a great deal of attention,” Travis said in a telephone interview.

Election Prospects

Democratic Representative Bobby Scott, the first African-American elected to Congress from Virginia since Reconstruction and whose district in Richmond is the only one in the state with a majority black population, said it was too early to know if Obama could carry the state because Republicans haven’t selected a nominee.

“It’s going to be a tough campaign for anyone, Democrat or Republican,” Scott said in a telephone interview.

The economy will be a central issue in the campaign and continued high unemployment combined with sluggish growth has become a liability for Obama. A Washington Post-ABC survey released Sept. 6 found that 62 percent of those polled expressed disapproval of Obama’s handling of the economy. The telephone poll of 1,001 randomly selected adults was conducted Aug. 29 to Sept. 1 has an error margin of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

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