(AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch,…)
Reporting from North Chesterfield, Va. — Closing out his bus tour on a low-key note, President Obama made a pitch for his jobs package at a firehouse, where a subdued crowd needed a bit of prompting to applaud his proposal to boost the economy.
Obama visited Fire Station 9 to draw attention to a major piece of his $447-billion jobs package. He wants to spread $35 billion among states and cities, in part to prevent layoffs of police and firefighters, and would pay for it with a surtax on millionaires. Congress may vote on that measure as early as this week.
On Wednesday afternoon, Obama stood at a lectern against a backdrop of firefighters and offered his prescription for solving the persistent jobs crisis: "A fair shot for everybody; a fair share from everybody. That's the principle that built America."
The president got a polite reception from the 100 or so people crowded into the station garage. Early in his speech he mentioned his American Jobs Act.
One or two people clapped.
"You can go ahead and clap," the president said. "Go ahead, nothing wrong with it."
The fire station is in a county that voted for Republican John McCain over Obama in 2008. But the president suggested he was purposely visiting GOP areas to prove a larger point: that both parties should be able to coalesce behind his jobs bill.
"It's wonderful to have a chance to see everybody and shake hands and take pictures," he said. "But the main reason I'm here is I want you to send a message to Congress that this is important. Let them know. Or get on the phone, write a letter, fax, tweet -- whatever it is that people do these days -- and remind members of Congress what's at stake here."
One person in the audience, Art Lipscomb, legislative director for the Virginia Professional Firefighters, said he welcomed Obama's message.
"Glad to see him come to the table and try to get something done and get the rest of those yahoos up there to the table in Washington,'' he said.
Asked about the muted response to the rare presidential visit, Lipscomb said emergency crews typically aren't demonstrative folk.
"We tend to do a job and that's it," he said. "This isn't their thing, being in the limelight."
Obama got a louder reception earlier in the day at an air base in Hampton, Va. Speaking to men and women dressed in military camouflage, Obama dared Republicans to cast a vote that could be seen as anti-armed forces. He called on Congress to pass another piece of his jobs package -- a tax break for employers who hire veterans.
Obama noted that he first laid out his jobs-for-vets idea in a speech last month to a joint session of Congress. Lawmakers from both parties stood and applauded, he said.
"So when it comes for a vote in the Senate, I expect to get votes from both sides of the aisle," he said. "Don't just applaud about it. Vote for it! Vote for it!"
The overall jobs package is stalled as a result of a Republican-led filibuster in the Senate. Hoping to salvage the plan, Obama and Democratic lawmakers will carve the bill into pieces and submit each for a vote.
One advantage of that approach, as proponents see it, is that it forces Republicans to cast several difficult votes.
The strategy has drawn fierce criticism from Republicans. In a floor speech on Wednesday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said: "It's completely preposterous at a time when 14 million Americans are looking for a job in this country for the president to be riding around on a bus saying we should raise taxes -- on the very folks who create jobs."
Obama's rhetoric shows the distance he has traveled since the summer, when he made futile attempts to compromise with Republican leaders over a plan to increase the federal debt ceiling. The White House's new strategy is not to accommodate Republicans but to subject them to maximum pressure.
"Standing up for veterans is not a Democratic responsibility or a Republican responsibility. It's an American responsibility," Obama said.
The Virginia leg of the bus tour left some Democratic strategists puzzled. Obama bypassed the populous northern region that reflects the changing demographics of the state: the influx of suburban voters who were receptive to his message and helped him carry Virginia in 2008.
Obama's first stop was in a southern county, Greensville, with a population of only 12,000, according to 2010 census figures.
Fairfax County in suburban Washington has about 1.1 million people -- 14% of the state's population. Obama carried the county in 2008, but a warning sign came one year later, when the county swung back to the Republicans with Bob McDonnell's victory over Democrat Creigh Deeds in the governor's race.
"If you're going to do a multi-stop swing through Virginia, you can never not go to northern Virginia," said one Democratic strategist familiar with the state's politics. "It's a must-stop every single time."
White House aides said the president had been to northern Virginia many times since taking office and would make return trips in the coming months. They've said that the purpose of a bus tour was to hit smaller towns that aren't as accessible by presidential plane and motorcade.