President Barack Obama jogs to a stage at the Asheville Regional Airport… (Chuck Burton / Associated…)
Bowing to political reality, President Obama conceded Monday he can’t pass his $447-billion jobs package intact. So now he is pushing Congress to approve it right away in what he called “bite-size pieces.’’
Obama opened a bus tour through North Carolina and Virginia with a plug for his jobs plan at an airport rally that had the feel of a reelection campaign event.
The crowd broke into chants of “four more years’’ at one point, prompting Obama to interrupt that he has sights on a more immediate goal: approval of his jobs plan. The White House has described the three-day trip as an official event that will be underwritten by taxpayers, not the Obama reelection campaign.
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“I appreciate the ‘four more years,’ but right now I’m thinking about the next 13 months,’’ said the president, appearing in his shirtsleeves, with a huge American flag in the background. “Yes we have an election coming up, but the election is a long ways away and a lot of folks can’t wait. We don’t have time to wait. We have a choice right now.’’
Obama stood near an 8,001-foot runway at Asheville Regional Airport that is in need of renovation. Should Congress pass the jobs plan, the airport would be eligible for federal funds coming from a $50-billion pot of money set aside for construction projects, the White House said.
Obama’s advisors had initially presented the jobs plan as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. But that strategy proved untenable. Last week, Senate Democrats could not muster the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster, pass the plan and send it to the House for a vote.
Now, Obama hopes to salvage the package by having Congress take it up in pieces. Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One that the White House is “very pleased’’ Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has agreed to give top priority to an element of the plan that would give $35 billion to states and municipalities so they can keep public employees on the job.
“It’s time to focus less on satisfying some wing of the party and more on common-sense ideas that we can take to put people to work right now,’’ Obama said. “So we’re going to give members of Congress another chance to step up to the plate and do the right thing.’’
He added: “We’re going to break up my jobs bill. Maybe they couldn’t understand the whole thing all at once. So we’re going to break it up in bite-size pieces so they can take a thoughtful approach to this legislation.’’
Obama said he wants Congress to cast a vote this week. But Republicans suggested the timing won’t work.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said the Senate is debating other bills this week and will be away on recess next week.
Obama’s message to Republicans was two-fold. He said he would cooperate with them if they genuinely want to pass legislation that would boost the weak economy. But he cautioned that voters are restless and that obstructionists would pay a steep political price.
“If they vote against taking steps that we know will put Americans back to work right now, then they’re not going to have to answer to me,’’ Obama said. “They’re going to have to answer to you.’’
It doesn’t seem coincidental that Obama is focusing on a part of the map that was central to his commanding electoral college victory in 2008.
Obama won North Carolina that year by the slimmest of margins. Still, he was the first Democratic presidential candidate to capture the state since Jimmy Carter in ’76. And he put Virginia back in the Democratic column for the first time since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in ’64.
Winning the states again won’t be easy. Obama’s poll numbers are dropping, largely because of a stubborn unemployment rate that now stands at 9.1%. His jobs bill represents the last, best chance he’ll get before the election to put the economy on a more promising track.
A Quinnipiac University poll in Virginia earlier this month contained worrisome news for the president. The survey showed that 52% of Virginians disapproved of how Obama is doing his job, compared with 45% who approved. In 2008, Obama won Virginia with 53% of the vote.
“It’s the economy more than anything else,’’ said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “That’s what drives a presidential vote, and most people don’t see he’s delivered. It’s the same in Virginia as it is in all the other swing states.’’