OTTUMWA, Iowa (Reuters) - President Barack Obama traveled to the U.S. Midwest heartland on Tuesday to tout his plans to boost job growth, but acknowledged that while the economy was growing again, not everyone is benefiting.
With U.S. unemployment just below 10 percent, Americans are anxious about the country’s finances, nudging Obama’s approval ratings to 50 percent or below and dimming his fellow Democrats’ prospects in November’s congressional elections.
“Everybody here knows there’s a lot of recovery that we still have to do,” he told a college audience before taking questions at a “town hall” meeting at a community college in Ottumwa, in southeastern Iowa, although he said the economy is improving and businesses are starting to create jobs again.
“Times are still tough for middle-class Americans, who had been swimming against the current for years before the economic tidal wave hit,” he said.
Noting the public’s concerns about taxes and the deficit, Obama also told the crowd the country would have to make “tough choices” to control costs.
Obama’s Midwest visit comes against the backdrop of efforts by Democrats in Congress to push through a bill to better regulate the practices of financial firms. It is the president’s top legislative priority and popular with voters, many of whom blame the U.S. financial crisis on Wall Street excesses.
Obama told his audience that closer regulation of Wall Street would benefit people even in small towns, who had suffered from lost jobs and budget crunches after the banking crisis that sparked the global recession.
“As far away as Ottumwa, you were impacted by what they were doing,” he said, and then blasted Senate Republicans who have voted twice in 24 hours to block debate on the regulatory reform bill.
“It’s one thing to oppose reform, but to oppose us even talking about reform in front of the American people and have a legitimate debate, that’s not right,” he told a cheering crowd of more than 2000 people. “The American people deserve an honest debate on this bill.”
Obama earlier visited a Siemens AG wind turbine blade plant and said his administration’s investment in clean energy, part of an ambitious effort to end the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels, would create or save more than 700,000 jobs by the end of 2012.
Climate change and energy legislation hit a snag this week, however, after a key Republican withdrew his support for the bill. Obama remained optimistic, saying he still believed “we can come together around this issue.”
Obama’s visit to Iowa will be followed by stops in Missouri and Illinois on Wednesday. The trip focuses on his plan to boost job growth and support small businesses in rural communities, the latest steps in his effort to convince Americans he can ease their economic distress.
Obama’s last stop on the trip will be Quincy, Illinois, where he will make a speech on Wall Street reform on Wednesday evening, White House deputy communications director Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.
The three-state trip, which includes stops far from big cities and coastal regions where he is most popular, is the latest leg of Obama’s “White House to Main Street” tour, which has included earlier trips to Pennsylvania, Ohio and Georgia.
Obama wants tighter rules to prevent a repeat of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which tipped the economy into a deep recession. Republicans see a need for reform, but say the Democrats’ bill is a government overreach.
Writing by Patricia Zengerle and Ross Colvin, editing by Todd Eastham