By Jeff Mason
LAWRENCE, Kan. (Reuters) - President Barack Obama finished up a two-day tour of the U.S. heartland on Thursday with a stop in a Democratic-leaning enclave of conservative Kansas to tout proposals to make childcare more affordable for those in need.
Hoping to build momentum for social policies he laid out in a defiant State of the Union speech, the Democratic president went to two politically conservative states to try to show his policies appeal to Americans from both main parties.
In Kansas, where Obama's mother was born, the president joked that his roots in the state did not help him in his two campaigns for the White House. Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, is a rare Democratic-leaning part of the state.
"I lost two straight here. But that's OK," he said to an enthusiastic crowd of more than 7,000 people at a university athletic facility.
"I might've won sections of Lawrence," he said to applause.
The White House is hoping some of that enthusiasm could be telegraphed to Washington, where a Republican-controlled Congress is lukewarm to many of Obama's policy ideas.
His childcare proposals include investing in a fund to help families afford care, raising the maximum childcare tax credit to $3,000 per young child, and starting a new "innovation fund" to help jumpstart childcare programs for parents who live in rural areas or who work odd hours.
"It is time that we stop treating childcare as a side issue or a 'women’s issue,'" Obama said. "This is a family issue. This is a national economic priority for all of us. We can do better than we’re doing right now."
In Washington, a spokesman for House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner criticized Obama's State of the Union plans for social programs that include making two years of community college free and universally available.
"Republicans are all for increasing access to quality, affordable education, but we don't need more top-down policies from Washington or new tax hikes on middle-income families saving for their children's college education," spokesman Cory Fritz said.
The White House often sets up events on Obama's trips to illustrate his policy priorities, and Thursday's was at a school in Lawrence that was one of the first recipients of funding for the government's Head Start early education program.
"What's your name," one youngster asked the president after he entered the classroom. "I'm Barack!" he responded.
(Additional reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by John Whitesides and Howard Goller)