Making good on his promise to take his job-creation message to “every corner of America,” President Obama began on Friday with a corner close to home: Richmond, Va. His audience this time was not stone-faced members of Congress but 9,000 students and young spectators--eager recipients of the president's pitch to help unemployed and low-income youths.
Obama broke no new ground on Friday. He simply reiterated the major points he laid out in his address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday night: extending unemployment insurance, cutting employer payroll taxes in half, and finding a way to pay the economic boost without adding to the national deficit.
Obama also reiterated the same tough--and, to many ears, politically tinged--rhetoric he had employed on Capitol Hill.
“To my Republican friends,” Obama said to the crowd in Richmond, “if you guys made pledges never to raise taxes ever again, you can’t make an exception when the tax break is going to middle-class people.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., -- who has had a testy relationship with Obama in recent months -- did not sit idly by as the president marched into his home turf. He held a dueling event where he, too, talked about jobs and economic development with employees at the Richmond plant of Titan America, a heavy building materials company.
Cantor on Thursday told reporters in Washington that he did not believe Obama would carry his home state in the 2012 presidential general election – as he had in 2008 – because “the Commonwealth has entirely too many people out of work.”
But despite Obama's record-low national poll numbers, the president drew a warm reception in a state he managed to carry in 2008 and that Democrats regard as crucial to his reelection in 2012. Audience members shouted “I love you, Barack” and chanted “U-S-A,” in an atmosphere intended to invoke memories of the powerful youth movement that swept Obama to victory.
College graduates in particular have faced an especially tough labor market, and they have learned enough realities from a three-year recession to know that the odds are stacked against them. Obama sought to project a strong tone of optimism in calling on students to rise to the challenge.
“I’m glad you’re having fun, but you need to hit the books,” Obama quipped, before turning serious. “You’re competing now against kids in Bangalore and kids in Beijing. You can’t ignore math, engineering, and science classes.”
And the audience’s assignment didn’t end there. He asked anyone watching or listening to help him win the GOP votes he needs to pass the American Jobs Act by reaching out to their congressmen through Twitter, Facebook, the phone, or even, jokingly, carrier pigeons. (He asked the same of his supporters during stalled debt-ceiling negotiations this summer.)
Obama again cast himself as hopeful that Republicans would come aboard and support him, even in the face of their mostly unyielding opposition to his previous agenda.
“I know some people think [Republicans] have used up the benefit of the doubt, but I’m an eternal optimist,” Obama said. “I believe if you just stay at it long enough, eventually, after you’ve exhausted all other options, folks do the right thing. But we got to give them a little help to do the right thing.”
Cantor told Titan employees and others on Friday that, “It’s not often that we have the President of the United States come to our hometown,” and that “I was glad to see the President was coming here.”
Cantor also recounted he’d spoken to Obama Thursday night – before the president’s address Congress – and that he told the president that he hoped he’d hear while in Richmond “the same kind of concerns that I hear every time I come home in that people want to see results in this country, they want to see America get back to work."
Cantor also said that while the president is insisting lawmakers pass his jobs bill, “the all or nothing hasn't worked in Washington over last 8 months. Let’s try a better way.” And Cantor described a “real debate going on in Washington” on how to address the federal debt, and economic growth.”
“A very different vision also exists in Washington; some people believe that Washington and the federal government are there to guarantee a certain outcome, to guarantee success,” said Cantor. “I just don’t believe that that can happen.”
But going back to the president’s speech and jobs plan, Cantor said there “are areas of commonality.”
He noted the President talked about providing tax relief for small businesses and that there were other suggestions the President made that he's for increasing infrastructure investments and wants an infrastructure bank.
“And while we may differ on how to do it, it is important not only for this industry but for the country to see our roads and bridges in good repair,” said Cantor.
“Also, we are just down the road from the port of Virginia. There's an opportunity to work together to get trade going in and out of these ports by passing the trade bills. All these are things we can work together to build consensus,” he said.