President Barack Obama tried to revive his battered agenda and rally despondent Democrats on Friday with a renewed emphasis on jobs. His visit to this struggling Rust Belt city capped a tough first-anniversary week for a presidency that suffered jolts at the hands of Massachusetts voters and the Supreme Court.
“I’m not going to win every round,” Obama told a town hall audience. But, striking a populist tone on a campaign-style swing, Obama pledged, “I can promise you there will be more fights in the days ahead.”
He used the word “fight” or some variation over a dozen times as he tried out a revamped message focused mainly on the economy, part of a stepped up effort to persuade Americans he’s doing all he can to create jobs.
“This isn’t about me. This is about you,” he said.
And while he has recently voiced a willingness to find common ground in the divisive health care debate, he insisted he was not ready to abandon the cause or to drop his environmental and energy agenda even with the strengthened GOP hand in the Senate.
“There are things that have to be done,” he said. “And that means marching forward, not standing still.” He acknowledged “we had a little bit of a buzz saw” on health care overhaul.
Instead of the anniversary celebration Obama might have expected, the week was one of the worst in recent times for the White House, with much hand-wringing and blame-casting among dazed Democrats in the halls of Congress.
The week brought two major shifts to the political landscape.
Little-known Republican Scott Brown’s seizing of the Massachusetts Senate seat held for decades by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy cost Democrats their filibuster-proof supermajority of 60 votes in the Senate and seriously threatened Obama’s entire domestic agenda. It means Republicans will be able to stop or seriously slow down legislation at will.
The GOP victory was also a poor omen for November’s midterms, continuing a trend that began with Democratic losses in November in gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. Also, a succession of Democratic lawmakers have decided to retire rather than face voters this year.
Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling overturning limits on corporate political spending opened the way for businesses and special interests to spend money freely on commercials for or against individual candidates. Obama said the 5-4 decision would allow wealthy special interests to “drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”
The opinion could have an impact on this fall’s races that could disproportionately work to the disadvantage of Democrats.
While the ruling also opened the way for unions to spend directly on campaign commercials, union membership has been steadily declining. It’s down from its peak of about 35 percent of workers in the 1950s to 12.3 percent in 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Friday. The bureau said the decline was hastened by the recession.
Republicans sought to capitalize on their Massachusetts windfall by stepping up their attacks on Obama and congressional Democrats.
House Minority leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, asserted that his home state “is desperate for a plan to put Americans back to work.” But he claimed Obama’s health care and climate-change proposals would destroy jobs.
“Like the people of Massachusetts, Ohioans are saying `enough is enough’ of the big-government agenda,” Boehner wrote in an op-ed piece in Friday’s Cleveland Plain Dealer. Ohio’s unemployment rate climbed to 10.9 percent in December, up from 10.7 percent in November and the ninth successive month of double-digit unemployment.
Buoyed congressional Republicans have their sights on winning back majority control they lost in 2006, seeing potential gains in Ohio, Michigan, New York and Arkansas.
Obama last came to this northeastern Ohio county in 2008 for a campaign speech on the economy at a drywall factory that closed two months later. En route Friday to a wind turbine plant, his motorcade whizzed by a snowy landscape of scores of buildings either for lease or sale.
Obama told his audience at the Lorain County Community College “the worst of this economic storm has passed. But families like yours and communities like Elyria are still reeling from the devastation left in its wake. Folks have seen jobs you thought would last forever disappear.”
He said a new stimulus spending bill emerging in Congress — the White House is calling it a “jobs” bill — must include tax breaks for small business hiring and for people trying to make their homes more energy efficient — two proposals he wasn’t able to get into a bill the House passed last month
Obama defended as necessary his administration’s widely unpopular moves to bail out financial and auto companies. He also stepped up his recent attack on bankers and bonuses, defending his proposal to tax big banks to recover bailout costs and to limit their size and activities.
With the town hall meeting, tours of a wind turbine plant and classroom, an impromptu diner stop and even the lack of a necktie, Obama’s day had the feel of one from his campaign.
Outside the town hall meeting were groups of anti-Obama protesters. “He’s done a lot, but they are all negative things,” said Ray Angell, 65, of Twinsburg, Ohio, a conservative active in the anti-tax Tea Party movement. He cited the stimulus package and climate change proposals.
In an interview with ABC News this week, a reflective Obama said that he recognized “remoteness and detachment” had set in and that he blamed himself for not communicating better. “I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people,” he said.
Strategists of both parties said Obama needs to do more to reach out to Republicans, pointing out that few recent presidents have had filibuster-proof majorities in Congress and yet have managed to pass major legislation.
Also, Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton managed to snap back from huge first-term midterm losses for their respective parties in to win big re-election victories.
Doug Schoen, a Democratic consultant who was Clinton’s pollster, said Obama should take a cue from his former boss.
“He absolutely has to move to the center,” Schoen said, “change his focus, try to reach out to the Republicans and try to change his rhetorical approach as well as the way he governs.”
Philip Elliott reported from Elyria and Tom Raum reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Thomas J. Sheeran contributed to this report.