TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - President Barack Obama vowed on Thursday he would not rest until U.S. businesses were hiring again, as he took his recast agenda on the road and sought to dig out of his deepest political rut since taking office.
The day after a State of the Union address in which he tried to reconnect with the public with a hard focus on the economy, Obama went to Florida where he unveiled $8 billion in grants for high-speed rail projects the White House says will create employment and transform U.S. train travel.
With his poll numbers down and his presidency faltering after his first year, Obama told a friendly audience at a townhall-style meeting that he understood the economic pain they were feeling because of double-digit unemployment.
Underscoring the message delivered in his State of the Union speech, he said jobs growth would be his top priority.
“We’re not going to rest until we’ve rebuilt an economy in which hard work and responsibility are rewarded and businesses are hiring again and wages are growing again and the middle class can get its legs underneath it again,” Obama said at the University of Tampa.
Giving a boost to Obama’s push for quick action on jobs, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters in Washington that he would unveil a jobs package next week.
While a tepid economic recovery has begun, U.S. unemployment has remained at 10 percent. Failure to make progress on jobs could damage prospects for Obama’s Democratic party in November mid-term congressional election.
But Republicans, who considered the $787 billion stimulus Obama signed into law last year wasteful spending, said further actions Democrats are considering on jobs would be a repeat of failed policy.
“The stimulus simply isn’t working, but rather than admit it, the president and congressional Democrats are doubling down and calling for even more government stimulus spending — wasting even more taxpayer dollars,” said House of Representatives Republican leader John Boehner.
The White House said the rail projects Obama was unveiling would save or create thousands of jobs and would be one of a series of job initiatives he would lay out in coming weeks.
“We’re going to put more Americans to work on building our infrastructure,” Obama said in Tampa.
Obama also pledged on Wednesday night he would not abandon his struggling healthcare overhaul efforts and other key priorities.
The president took office amid strong public approval and high expectations but has had to grapple with a deep recession and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His Democratic party’s stunning loss of a pivotal Senate seat last week imperiled his legislative agenda.
But Obama promised not to give up in his efforts to break through party-driven politics in Washington, and to push through his ambitious agenda on financial reforms, healthcare, energy and climate change.
In a move toward the political center, Obama emphasized in his State of the Union speech a pledge to rein in exploding U.S. budget deficits and called for a three-year freeze on some spending programs.
Obama hopes to counter attempts by Republicans to paint him as a “big spender,” a line of attack that has played a role in the drop in his poll numbers.
He told the Tampa audience that he welcomed the passage by the U.S. Senate of a measure known as “pay as you go” that aims to curb spending. The measure would require new spending to be offset with cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Obama’s healthcare reform legislation, which would extend health insurance to millions of Americans, faces possible failure now that Democrats no longer hold a “supermajority” of 60 Senate votes to overcome Republican procedural hurdles.
But U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said lawmakers would move “on many fronts” on the stalled overhaul, and could pass smaller pieces of the bill separately.
Legislation to curb climate change has also stalled and even some of its supporters believe it may be sidelined this year.
(Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Frances Kerry)
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, Alister Bull, Jeff Mason, editing by Frances Kerry