* Tough questions from middle-class voters
* Businessman sees "strangling" of job creation
* President defends tax plan
(Adds comments from Richmond, analyst)
By Patricia Zengerle
DES MOINES, Sept 29 President Barack Obama
defended his economic policies on Wednesday in the face of
tough questions from skeptical Americans less than five weeks
before congressional elections that threaten his fellow
Democrats' grip on Congress.
Holding the latest in a series of backyard meetings with
middle-class voters, Obama heard one small businessman's fears
that his tax plans could "strangle" job creation. The president
also fielded concerns about high unemployment and the impact of
his healthcare overhaul.
It was a marked contrast to the enthusiastic university
crowd that greeted Obama on Tuesday in Wisconsin when he sought
to fire up his youthful base of support, and showed the
obstacles his Democratic Party faces in the Nov. 2 elections.
Obama stood up for his agenda but acknowledged the country
faced "hard decisions" as he works to shore up the struggling
economy and rein in huge budget deficits. "We're not going to
be able to solve our big problems unless we honestly address
them," he told about 70 people at an Iowa home.
One questioner brought up her 24-year-old son, who
graduated from college and campaigned for Obama in 2008 but has
been unable to find a full-time job. "He and many of his
friends are struggling. They are losing their hope, which is a
message that you inspired them with," she said.
A small businessman expressed concern about Obama's
proposal to extend Bush-era tax cuts only on families with
personal income of less than $250,000, and bemoaned policies he
said would discourage hiring.
"As the government gets more and more involved in business
and gets more involved in taxes to pay for an awful lot of
programs, what you're finding is ... you're sort of strangling
the engine that does create the jobs," the man said.
Obama said his tax proposal will help middle-class earners
and avoid what he sees as unneeded tax breaks for wealthier
Americans. The issue has sparked heated debate between
Democrats and Republicans.
'PAYING OUR BILLS'
"I'd like to keep taxes low so that you can create more
jobs. But I also have to make sure that we are paying our bills
and that we're not ... putting off debt for the future
generation," Obama told his questioner.
Representative Eric Cantor, a Republican whose Virginia
district Obama also visited on Wednesday, sought to pre-empt
the president's arrival with a call for him to support a bill
that "will stave off tax hikes for every American."
In Virginia, Obama blasted Republicans - referring to
Cantor without using his name -- for, he said, failing to offer
concrete ideas and making a political calculation to refuse to
work with him to address the country's problems.
"It's been a pretty successful strategy," Obama said.
"Because right now, people are frustrated. All the good feeling
we had coming in... has dissipated. That means a lot of the
people who were supporting me are talking about maybe just
staying home in the election. And meanwhile the other side's
all ginned up: 'We can take power back,'" he told supporters
crowding a community center to avoid a rainstorm.
Obama drew more than 26,000 people on Tuesday at the
University of Wisconsin, where he appealed to young voters --
who tend to favor Democrats but are less likely to go to the
polls -- to back his party. The mood was reminiscent of
triumphant rallies late in his 2008 presidential campaign.
William Galston of the Brookings Institution called Obama
the "best card that Democrats can play" to energize voters to
stave off potentially steep losses in November. Polls show an
enthusiasm gap, with Democrats less likely than Republicans to
vote in the mid-term elections.
"If you see the enthusiasm gap ... cut significantly
between now and election day, I think the president can claim
some victory," said Galston, a veteran of the Clinton White
Questioners in Des Moines were polite and respectful; some
expressed appreciation for Obama's hard work. But some
questions were more pointed than at other such events.
Iowa traditionally stages the first nominating contest for
presidential candidates and is in many ways a bellwether for
the national mood. A poll in the Des Moines Register found 55
percent of likely voters in Iowa, which Obama won in 2008, said
they were dissatisfied with him, while 42 percent approved of
his job performance.
Richmond, Virginia, was the last stop on Obama's four-state
trip meant to reinvigorate his party's base.
He appealed to Hispanics in weekend interviews on
Spanish-language television and an education-focused backyard
event in New Mexico. He targeted young voters in Madison and
talked economics and the middle class in Iowa and Virginia.
(Writing by Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by
Peter Cooney and Todd Eastham)