ELYRIA, Ohio (Reuters) - President Barack Obama rejected criticism that he has spent too little time trying to generate jobs and vowed to keep working on healthcare in a speech that showed a feisty tone at the end of a tough week.
“I won’t stop fighting for you,” he thundered in a campaign-style speech in economically sagging northeastern Ohio, remarks that provided a likely preview of the themes in his first State of the Union speech next Wednesday.
Trying to shore up public support, Obama urged people to “stand by me, even during these tough times.” He took on directly some concerns about his policies raised by the election on Tuesday of a Massachusetts Republican to fill a Senate seat long held by Democrats.
He vigorously defended bank and car company bailouts and a $787 billion economic stimulus program as needed to save the economy — moves that have generated anger and frustration among Americans and accusations that Washington had forgotten their concerns in favor of Wall Street.
Obama acknowledged that the healthcare overhaul — suddenly in limbo on Capitol Hill — had run into a political “buzz saw.” He dismissed concerns that his lengthy focus on healthcare meant he had taken his eye off the economy, the country’s No. 1 problem.
“Let me dispel this notion that we were somehow focused on that (healthcare) and so as a consequence not focused on the economy. First of all, all I think about is how are we going to create jobs in this area,” Obama said.
The president’s switch to a more populist tone followed his own admission in an ABC News interview earlier this week that he had lost a direct connection with everyday Americans.
The president, marking one-year in office this week, has suddenly run into difficult headwinds, prompting speculation of a mid-course correction and forcing him to consider supporting a scaled-back healthcare plan.
The election of Republican Scott Brown as a senator from Massachusetts means Democrats will no longer have a 60-vote supermajority in the chamber. As a result, Democrats will not be able to hold off Republican procedural maneuvers designed to block legislation.
The loss will make it harder for Obama to advance his ambitious domestic agenda.
A post-election survey of Massachusetts voters published by The Washington Post on Friday said 63 percent of voters said the country is seriously off track, a possible harbinger of trouble ahead for Democrats in the November congressional elections.
As Democrats try to craft a strategy to pass healthcare, Obama vowed to keep fighting for the issue. “I am not going to walk away just because it is hard,” he said.
In a particularly emotional moment, Obama said he was not concerned about poll numbers. His job approval rating is hovering around 50 percent, down from about 70 percent when he took office.
“This is not about me. It’s you. I didn’t take up this issue to boost my poll numbers. You know the way to boost your poll numbers is not do anything. That’s how you do it. You don’t offend anybody. I’d have real high poll numbers. All of Washington would be saying, what a genius,” he said.
Obama, in what sounded like an admission that he had become detached from everyday Americans, said it was a “little confining” living in the protective bubble of the White House.
“I can’t just walk around and visit people like I used to. I can’t just go to the barber shop or sit at a diner,” he said.
Before his speech, he sought to get some face time with local people by having a hamburger at Smitty’s bar and grill and talking to locals.
It was the second stop on Obama’s so-called White House to Main Street tour, announced in December. One aim is to help the president demonstrate that he understands how important it is to fix the economy and generate jobs. The United States is emerging from its worst recession in 70 years.
Elyria has steadily shed manufacturing jobs since the 1980s, as local factories lost out to cheaper labor markets overseas. The White House has said the town has received $6.6 million under Obama’s emergency spending bill.
Writing by Alister Bull and Steve Holland, editing by Philip Barbara