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Obama on women, economics, Gramm

From NBC/NJ's Athena Jones and NBC's Katie Mulhall
FAIRFAX, Va. -- Obama said McCain and one of his top economic advisers believed America's economic problems were a "figment" of voters' imagination.

At a town hall focused on economic security for women, the Illinois senator said McCain's record on the economic issues that matter most to women showed he would not bring change, in part because he believed the Bush administration's economic record had meant "great progress" for the economy.

VIDEO: Presumptive presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain respond to comments made by a McCain advisor, Phil Gramm, who said the U.S. has become a "nation of whiners." NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

Obama went on to criticize former Sen. Phil Gramm for saying the country was merely in a "mental recession."

"He didn't say this, but I guess what he meant was that it's a figment of your imagination -- these high gas prices," Obama said to laughter and jeers from the crowd. "This comes after Sen. McCain recently admitted that his energy proposals for the gas tax holiday and the drilling will have mainly quote psychological benefits."

Gramm's comments, which McCain has rejected, played into Obama's argument that his rival not only does not understand the economy, but that he is out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans. He sought to drive that point home with a long riff on some of the problems facing struggling families. (See prepared remarks.)

It was Obama's second event today focused on women. Michelle Obama has also been on the campaign trail focusing on issues of importance to women in the battleground states if Missouri today and Michigan yesterday.

The presumptive Democratic nominee announced no new policy during his speech, but framed his already announced proposals -- from a $1,000 middle class tax cut to expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit -- in terms of how they would help women. He said that unlike McCain he would make sure the minimum wage rises yearly to keep up with inflation and he would be a partner with unions.

Obama hit McCain on equal pay, saying that McCain "suggested women need more education and training" to achieve parity in compensation, when in reality "the problem is that women aren't being treated fairly." 

He tied his proposals on women and the economy to the theme of family values, noting that "When women 70 cents for every dollar men make, it doesn't just hurt women, it hurts families." He pushed for paid family and sick leave, because "I think we can all agree that taking care of our children and caring for our loved ones is the most important job we have."  More: "If you're sick, you should be able to get a day off" and "look after your children if they get sick." 

On equal pay, McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds writes, "On issue after issue, Barack Obama has shown that he is prone to intentionally using words and making comments that are at odds with his own record. One report begs the question, are women outnumbered and out-paid by men in Barack Obama's own Senate office?"

On FISA and the national debt: Obama spoke for about 35 minutes before taking questions on a series of topics, from why he would be better for Latinos to his thoughts on writing.

At one point he was challenged for supporting the new FISA bill. He said he had voted against the original version of the bill that would have given the Bush administration, which he said had clearly gone around the FISA court, as well as the phone companies "a clean bill of health," but voted for the new bill, even though it was imperfect, because the surveillance program was important to national security.

He used a question on the national debt to attack McCain for suggesting he could balance the budget by 2013.

"I wanna go ahead and tell you the truth which is we will not eliminate the deficit or the national debt in the next four years or even in the next eight years," he said. "John McCain put out a plan suggesting that he was gonna eliminate the deficit by 2013, in five years, and people looked at it and they started hooting and hollering and laughing because it just wasn't true."

Obama received some of his loudest applause addressing No Child Left Behind, answering that the way to provide better education "is not just by applying a single high-stake standardized tests." He said that the law "has led to counterproductive behavior. Teachers teach to the test," and "it doesn't inspire students."  He did add that "it doesn't mean our kids can't take a standardized test once and a while, it just means it has to be supplemented" by other kinds of learning. 

He also answered a question on the importance of writing in his life, and stressed the importance of good writing skills in the job market: "these days kids know how to text message…but when you are applying for a job they will not be asking if you know how to text message." He also revealed that "over the course of the last four years I made time to read all of the Harry Potter books out loud to my daughters." 

His other biggest applause line came when he discussed foreign policy, emphasizing again the need for a return to diplomacy in our foreign policy, and "promising restore relationships and alliances," adding "there's nothing 'soft' about that."