RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - President Barack Obama sharpened his rhetoric on Wednesday in a push for his $447 billion jobs package, even as polls showed Americans skeptical of the plan and Democrats’ loss of a congressional seat raised new questions about his political strength.
In the latest stop on what has become a “pass this bill” tour, Obama used a campaign-style rally to press his warning to Republicans not to let election politics delay action on his proposals to reduce chronically high U.S. unemployment.
“You need leaders who will put country before party,” Obama told a cheering crowd at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “The time for gridlock and games is over. The time for action is now.”
Obama and the Republicans — all looking toward elections in November 2012 — are locked in their third major budget battle of the year, after a near-shutdown of the government in April, a last-minute deal to avert a government default in August and negotiations now over the president’s jobs plan.
Battle lines have been drawn around familiar turf: Obama wants to raise taxes on wealthier Americans and corporations to pay for his plans; Republicans want to cut spending.
Obama has sought to pressure Republicans by taking his case on the road and accusing them of playing “political games” over jobs. But it is clear his own 2012 re-election depends heavily on his ability to spur the stagnant American economy.
Obama’s visit to the electoral swing state of North Carolina was aimed at building support for his jobs bill, which calls for a mixture of tax cuts and new government spending.
But doubts persist.
Just one in six people in a new National Journal/United Technologies poll said Obama’s plan would reduce unemployment “a lot.” About half of respondents thought it would improve employment at least “a little,” and one-quarter said the bill would not affect employment levels at all.
A Bloomberg poll showed 51 percent of Americans doubted the jobs package would bring down the 9.1 percent jobless rate and 40 percent thought it would.
Interviews with some of the 9,000 people at the rally showed a mixed response to Obama’s jobs push and frustration over the legislative dysfunction in Washington.
Sam Brewer, 30, of Raleigh, a former teacher now studying engineering, wants action on jobs but said Democrats missed an opportunity when they controlled both chambers of Congress for the first part of Obama’s term.
“Now it’s a divided Congress and the Republicans are perfectly happy to have nothing happen,” Brewer said.
Obama’s approval ratings got a small lift — to 47 percent from 45 percent — after he unveiled his jobs plan last week and he remains ahead of all potential Republican rivals in the 2012 election, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed.
But a CNN/ORC poll found Obama’s disapproval rating had reached a new high of 55 percent, while only 36 percent of those surveyed approve of his handling of the economy.
Adding to Obama’s woes, Republicans scored an upset victory in a congressional election on Tuesday in a Democratic stronghold of New York and trumpeted the win as a sign of voter discontent with the president’s policies.
Less than a week after Obama unveiled his jobs plan, New York City voters elected Republican Bob Turner, a retired media executive, in a House district held by a Democrat since the 1920s.
Turner — winner of a special election for the seat vacated by Anthony Weiner after a Twitter sex scandal — said voters had sent the message: “‘Mr. President, we are on the wrong track.’”
White House spokesman Jay Carney brushed aside the notion that could mean trouble for Obama and fellow Democrats in the November 2012 election. “Special elections are often unique and their outcomes do not tell you very much about future regularly scheduled elections,” he told reporters.
Taking aim at Republican resistance to parts of his job plan, Obama said: “It’s not about positioning for the election. It’s about giving the American people a win.
“I get fed up with that kind of game playing,” he said. “We’re in a national emergency ... and instead of getting folks to rise up above partisanship in a spirit that says we’re all in this together you’ve got folks who are purposely dividing.”
His plan to lower the jobless rate with tax cuts to spur hiring and spending paid for by tax hikes on the wealthy and some corporations has come under fire from Republicans who say higher taxes would hurt a weak economic recovery. They also oppose more government spending but may be open to extending payroll tax cuts, one of the main elements of Obama’s plan.
Republican members of a bipartisan congressional deficit reduction committee said it will be hard enough finding at least $1.2 trillion in savings over 10 years without adding Obama’s request for them to cover the cost of his jobs plan.
Additional reporting by Alister Bull, Donna Smith and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, and Ned Barnett in Raleigh; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Vicki Allen, Peter Cooney and Bill Trott