Obama woos military veterans on Virginia bus tour
NORTH CHESTERFIELD, Virginia |
NORTH CHESTERFIELD, Virginia (Reuters) - President Barack Obama cast a wider net on Wednesday to shore up support in key electoral battlegrounds as he wrapped up a bus tour of Virginia and North Carolina, two Southern states that could slip from his grasp and threaten his 2012 re-election chances.
With first lady Michelle Obama at his side, the president reached out to Virginia's large military population with a public-private partnership to retrain and hire thousands of U.S. veterans from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Standing up for our veterans is not a Democratic responsibility or a Republican responsibility. It is an American responsibility," Obama told a cheering crowd of over 2,000 during a visit to Langley Air Force Base in Hampton.
Obama was on the last leg of a three-day road trip across North Carolina and Virginia that the White House says is part of a nationwide pitch for his jobs plan, but which has carried the trappings of a candidate working the campaign trail.
Republicans have criticized the tour as "preposterous" political showmanship.
The first stages of Obama's bus tour were devoted heavily to trying to re-energize his base of liberals, blacks and younger voters needed to win a second term as his poll numbers languish amid a stagnant economy and high unemployment.
Before heading home to Washington, Obama sought to woo other constituencies, like the military population, that could help him stave off the eventual Republican presidential nominee in politically pivotal Virginia.
"As Michelle said, don't forget how everybody understands what you've done for this country," said Obama, glancing toward his wife, whose own approval ratings stand much higher than his and those of other U.S. politicians in recent polls.
Virginia is one of the states that Obama really must hold to be confident of a second White House term, and courting its military community could give him a boost.
Leading firms like ConAgra Foods and Tyson Foods pledge to hire 25,000 veterans and their spouses by the end of 2013, responding to Obama's call to tackle joblessness among those returning from war, the White House said.
His final scheduled stop, at a firehouse in the Richmond suburb of North Chesterfield to plug his proposal for aid to states to prevent firefighter layoffs, was meant to resonate with moderate independent voters he is trying to win back.
It also took him onto the turf of Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives and a relentless Obama critic, and the president did not miss the opportunity to prod lawmakers back in Washington.
"Congress will have a chance to see whether or not they want to put America back to work," he told the politely clapping audience of several dozen firefighters and their families. "They're going to have to answer to you."
Obama was using his tour not only to test out a more populist message for his re-election campaign, but also to gauge whether the two traditionally conservative states he won in the 2008 election can stay in his column in 2012.
All signs point to a daunting task for Obama, whose approval ratings nationwide have fallen to the 40 percent range, the lows of his presidency.
The bus tour was taking place more than a year before the November 2012 election, a time when incumbent presidents generally are fundraising instead of campaigning at full tilt.
IMPASSE OVER JOBS PLAN
Obama, whose re-election may hinge on his ability to spur hiring, is pressing Republican lawmakers to pass his $447 billion jobs package in "bite-size pieces" after they shot it down as a whole in Congress last week.
In Washington, where Senate Democrats planned to force a vote on the first piece of the plan before lawmakers leave for a week-long recess, Democrats and Republicans squabbled.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid accused Republicans of making Obama's defeat their top priority and said "their strategy is to keep the economy weak as long as possible."
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell belittled the president's three-day campaign trip.
"It's completely preposterous at a time when 14 million Americans are looking for a job in this country for the president to be riding around on a bus saying we should raise taxes -- on the very folks who create jobs," McConnell said.
But the White House dismissed the criticism and defended Obama's duty to get outside the Washington bubble.
Obama's strategy is to force Republicans to accept his proposals or be painted as obstructing economic recovery.
Republicans, who see Obama's plan as laden with wasteful spending and job-killing tax increases on wealthier Americans, say the Democratic president is playing political games.
Obama has another jobs tour next week. He flies to California, where he remains popular, but Western swing states where he has problems are also likely to be on his itinerary.
As Obama's black armored bus rolled through the South this week, there was little denying the shift into campaign mode in what experts see as must-win states for him next year.
North Carolina and Virginia had been solid Republican strongholds until Obama carried both states in 2008. But polls now show him in danger of losing them, and his arrival in Chesterfield was greeted by several dozen protesters waving signs including one claiming "Obama wants class warfare".
(Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis and Thomas Ferraro in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham and Eric Walsh)
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