Local Politics

Obama presses jobs plan, derides GOP ideas in NC visits

Posted October 16, 2011 8:06 p.m. EDT
Updated December 12, 2011 10:28 a.m. EST

— After spending Monday in the Blue Ridge Mountains, President Barack Obama will conclude the North Carolina portion of his three-day bus tour Tuesday morning with a speech at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown. 

On his two stops Monday, Obama combined campaign politics with economic policy. 

In speeches in Asheville and the tiny Wilkes County town of Millers Creek, the president called for public support of his American Jobs Act while dismissing an alternative proposal offered by Republicans in Congress.

After his $447 billion jobs plan failed in the Senate last week, Obama said he wants to present the plan piecemeal to Congress in hopes of getting portions approved.

"I guess maybe they just didn't understand the whole thing, so we're breaking it up into pieces," the president told a couple thousand cheering supporters at Asheville Regional Airport. "If they vote against taking steps that we know will put Americans back to work right now – right now – then they're not going to have to answer to me, they're going to have to answer to you."

Airport officials said they want to upgrade the runways in Asheville but don't have the money for the project. Obama said $50 billion he earmarked in the jobs legislation for infrastructure improvements would fund such efforts.

"All across the state, you've got highways that need to be built. You've got bridges that need to be fixed. You've got schools that need to be modernized," he said. "That's what Americans used to do best. We used to build things."

The president urged residents to pressure Congress to act on the legislation and not delay addressing the economy until after the 2012 elections. He found a sympathetic audience in Asheville.

"I'd like to see a little more cooperation in the Congress from the Republicans, and I'd like to see him have a little more backbone and stand up to them," Jeannine Diner said.

"(The legislation is) an opportunity for us to open up and do something about the jobs here in western North Carolina and across the country. People are hurting," David Jones said.

Obama's second stop in Wilkes County was designed to highlight a second piece of his jobs bill – $35 billion to local governments to hire teachers, police officers, firefighters and first responders.

Wilkes County Schools Superintendent Stephen Laws said the struggling economy has forced the district to cut its payroll by 120 over the past four years. The federal stimulus efforts backed by the Obama administration prevented more cutbacks in the district, he said.

"We need this jobs bill to help bridge the shortfall in funding from state and local governments, which are either fiscally unable or philosophically unwilling to educate children," Laws said in introducing Obama.

On its way to the high school, the presidential motorcade passed people holding signs like "No more massive government spending programs. They don't work" and "Lame Duck."

The president said he had no qualms about going into staunchly Republican territory – less than a third of Wilkes County voters backed Obama in the 2008 election – to promote his plan.

"This is the American Jobs Act. It's not the Democratic Jobs Act," he said to cheers in a packed, steamy school gymnasium at West Wilkes High School.

Yet, Obama outlined the differences between his proposal and one congressional Republicans have called the Real American Jobs Act.

The Republican plan, he said, would gut federal environmental regulations, roll back financial reforms implemented after the 2008 market collapse and repeal the national health care reform law.

"It's inspiring stuff," he said sarcastically, noting that independent economists have said that the proposal could cost U.S. jobs.

"We've got to build an economy that works for everybody, not just for some people, not just for the folks at the top," he said.

Many people said they came out to hear the president's plan for getting the economy back on track. Wilkes County has a 12.1 percent unemployment rate, among the highest in North Carolina.

"If you're out of a job, you can't find one because there's not any to be found. So, we're glad he's here," Leonard Harris said.

"I think that he's got some good things to offer. Hopefully, everybody will be objective to what he has to say," Sheila Dodson said.

"We support him either way. At the end of the day, he's part of our country, and that's what we do," Pooja Deva said.

Despite the president's call for urgency, it could be November at the earliest before lawmakers take up the proposals in the bill, due to debate scheduled this week on appropriations bills and a planned vacation at the end of this month.

North Carolina Republican leaders called Obama's visit a hollow presidential campaign trip to a battleground state and his jobs plan another failed stimulus.

"His time and taxpayer dollars would have been better spent if he had just stayed in (Washington) D.C., trying to pass a jobs bill that would actually work," state Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes said in a statement.

In a tongue in cheek move, the state GOP announced "Tow-Bama," a tow truck they said could haul the president's taxpayer-funded bus back to Washington.

The bus, dubbed Ground Force One, stopped in Marion for lunch, and Obama picked up a plate of barbecue and a sweet tea at Countryside Barbecue, where he chatted with diners about the economy and other issues.

The motorcade later stopped in Boone, where the president grabbed some candy at Mast General Store and talked with some Appalachian State University students.

Since announcing his plan for putting Americans back to work last month, Obama has been traveling the country trying to build public support for his initiatives. The president's itinerary has focused heavily on swing states, underscoring the degree to which what happens with his job bill is linked to his re-election prospects.

The White House insists the president is focused more on the economy than elections, with the nation's unemployment rate stuck at 9.1 percent.

John Davis, a longtime political analyst in North Carolina, said Obama will have a much harder time holding North Carolina in the next election cycle.

"This time, I think Obama loses the advantage of a surprise like he pulled off in 2008," he said.

Obama spent the night Monday in Greensboro and will head north through Virginia -- another battleground state that he must carry if he wants to win re-election next year -- Tuesday following his speech at GTCC in Jamestown. 

A Quinnipiac University poll out earlier this month put Obama's approval rating in Virginia at 45 percent, with 52 percent disapproving. The same poll showed 83 percent of Virginians were dissatisfied with the direction of the country. In North Carolina, Obama has a 42 percent approval rating, according to an Elon University poll conducted this month. Most national polls put Obama's approval rating in the mid- to low-forties.