President Barack Obama chats with homeowner Paul Keller in Reno. (Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty…)
RENO — President Obama, standing with a middle-class couple he said has benefited from a refinancing plan he pushed last fall, sought to draw attention to his efforts to solve the housing crisis.
Although Obama's support for same-sex marriage became the focus the week after he officially kicked off his reelection campaign, his trip here was a reminder that pocketbook issues are most important to swing voters.
Nevada, a key battleground, suffered acutely in the housing market collapse. Three-fifths of its homeowners are underwater, and the state had the nation's highest unemployment rate in March, at 12%.
Obama visited Friday with Val and Paul Keller, a couple who learned about the administration's Home Affordable Refinance Program when the president was in Clark County in October.
After talking with him at their kitchen table, the Kellers stood in front of the open garage of their modest two-story home as Obama told their neighbors and the media that the couple were saving $240 a month through the program. Since the administration revised the program, there has been a 240% increase in Nevada homeowners refinancing their mortgages, according to an independent estimate.
Obama said Congress could help even more homeowners if it acted on legislation that would make it easier for lenders to refinance mortgages. It's the second item on a congressional "to-do" list Obama put out this week, his latest attempt to use an unpopular GOP-led House as a punching bag.
"If they started now," he said, speaking of members of Congress, "in a couple weeks, in a month, they could make every homeowner in America who's underwater right now eligible to be able to refinance their homes if they're making their payments, if they're responsible, if they're doing the right thing. And think about all those families saving $3,000 on average a month. That's a huge boost to our economy."
Obama even invited lawmakers to meet with the Kellers, if they needed any further motivation to act. "They should talk to people whose lives are better because of the action that we took," he said.
Nevada has sided with the winning candidate in every presidential election since 1976, and both candidates are expected to fiercely contest its six electoral votes. A recent poll showed Obama ahead of presumptive Republican challenger Mitt Romney by 8 points, but he acted as if the margin were closer, chatting with dozens who lined the cul-de-sac to hear him speak.
In a conference call before the president's event, Romney supporters called Obama's housing policies a failure. "I appreciate the fact the president is coming to town and sitting in the living room with the Kellers, but it's not going to solve our problems," Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki said.
The president traveled to Reno from Los Angeles the day after a $15-million gala event at actor George Clooney's home in Studio City. Before he left Friday, he squeezed in some basketball at the Cheviot Hills Recreation Center with some Hollywood A-listers, including Clooney and Tobey Maguire. Asked who won, Obama first demurred, saying, "Which game?" He then revealed his and Clooney's team was victorious.
Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.