His sleeves rolled up and his finger stabbing the air, President Barack Obama pitched his newly unveiled jobs plan with campaign-style fervor Friday, urging Americans to pressure their lawmakers to pass his $447 billion initiative. "We're tougher than these times," he declared. "We are bigger than the smallness of our politics."
Venturing out of Washington to promote his initiative, Obama's first stop after addressing a joint session of Congress Thursday was on the home turf of one of his top Republican antagonists. Speaking at the University of Richmond, in the district represented by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Obama made a full-throated appeal for public support, punctuating his remarks with a sharp refrain: "Pass this bill!"
"It will jump start an economy that has stalled," Obama said, conceding that a nation stuck at 9.1 percent unemployment is no longer in recovery.
It was the first of many expected efforts by the president to rally public support for his program. The president and his advisers have made it clear that he intends to build pressure on lawmakers by emphasizing the urgency of acting on his proposals this fall and making sure they are held accountable if nothing passes. Next week he plans to go to Columbus, Ohio, a city represented by Republican congressmen and a state that is home to House Speaker John Boehner.
"I'm asking all of you to lift up your voices," he said. "I want you to call, I want you to email, I want you to tweet, I want you to fax, I want you to visit, I want you to Facebook, send a carrier pigeon, I want you to tell your congressperson the time for gridlock and games is over, the time for action is now."
The stalled economic recovery and high unemployment numbers have dogged Obama for months, lowering his approval ratings, particularly on his handling of the economy, and endangering his re-election. But Congress has fared even worse in the eyes of the public, giving Obama some public relations leverage.
Still, as president, he bears ultimate responsibility for the problem..
"It's not about what he says here today," said Tom Walsh, a University of Richmond employee and a father of six. "It's his performance and actions and effectiveness after this in dealing with this economy. It's what happens between now and voting time."
Nearly 9,000 people packed an arena on the university campus for an assembly that had all the feel of a political rally. The largely supportive crowd cheered enthusiastically as Obama outlined details of his jobs plan and broke into chants of "USA!" when the president ensured that America can compete with growing global powerhouses like China.
The White House said the choice of destination Friday had more to do with Richmond's proximity to Washington than taking a jab at the Virginia Republican, who has been one of the president's fiercest critics. Cantor did say Friday morning that he'd be willing to work with the White House on a job-creation plan so long as Obama doesn't pursue an "all-or-nothing" strategy.
After a summer of gridlock and intense partisan fighting over raising the nation's debt ceiling, Obama said he still held out hope that Republicans would rally behind his proposals and applauded the compromising tone set recently by Boehner and Cantor.
"I know that folks sometimes think they've used up the benefit of the doubt but I'm an eternal optimist, I'm an optimistic person," he said. "I believe if you just stay at it long enough, after they've exhausted all the other options, folks do the right thing."
The plan the president laid out Thursday night in his nationally televised speech contains $253 billion in tax cuts and $194 billion in new spending. It would increase and extend a Social Security payroll tax cut for workers. It also provides a tax cut to employers. Most of Obama's proposals stand little chance of being implemented without the backing of congressional Republicans.
Cantor planned to hold his own event in Richmond later Friday, speaking at a local cement plant about his party's plans to create jobs by curtailing regulations. In that sense, Richmond was the epicenter Friday for the competing political and policy arguments engendered by the struggling economy.
Obama also was building his case for long-term deficit reduction measures that would be used to pay for the short-term cost of his jobs plan. Obama said he will detail those measures a week from Monday, but indicated that they would include tax increases for the wealthy and an end corporate tax breaks. Any proposal to increase revenue would meet stiff Republican resistance.
But in his Richmond speech Friday, Obama offered a blunt choice.
"Should we keep tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, or should we put teachers back to work so our kids are ready to graduate from college and get a good job?" he asked. "We can't do both."
Eager to apply pressure on Republicans and make a case for the plan, the White House distributed analyses by outside economists that estimated the plan could create up to 1.9 million jobs. These economists cautioned, however, that the effects would be temporary and that the long-term impact of the plan would depend on the ability of the economy to build momentum and sustain growth on its own.
The White House communications team went into overdrive in the hours after the speech, sending out dozens of emails from lawmakers and organizations offering their support for the president's speech. Nearly all were from lawmakers in the president's own party or organizations that traditionally support Democrats.