The president used a town hall on the economy Wednesday to blast Republicans for doing little to help jump-start the recovery or to help prevent the kind of near collapse of the financial system that led to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
In a fiery, campaign-style speech before a crowd of some 1,350 people in Racine, WI, the president said the economy was growing and adding jobs and that Congress was on the verge of passing a comprehensive overhaul of the financial regulatory system that he said would protect the economy from "the recklessness and irresponsibility of a few," protect consumers and make sure that taxpayers don't have to foot the bill for Wall Street's mistakes. But he criticized the opposition, particularly House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), for not supporting the bill.
"The leader of the Republicans in the House said that financial reform was like -- and I'm quoting here -- using a nuclear weapon to target an ant," Obama said. "He compared the financial crisis to an ant. This is the same financial crisis that led to the loss of nearly eight million jobs; same crisis that cost people their homes; their life savings."
The president was referring to comments Boehner made in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review newspaper. The Republican leaders told the paper, in reference to the financial regulatory bill: "This is killing an ant with a nuclear weapon."
Obama said most people don't see the financial crisis as an ant, reprising a common theme from the presidential campaign, when he consistently sought to show that Democrats understood the concerns of everyday Americans, while Republicans were "out of touch" and beholden to large corporations and lobbyists. In fact, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs used that very phrase to describe Boehner during the daily press briefing on Tuesday and Obama repeated it today, signaling the argument would likely play a role in this year's elections -- along with other common themes from 2008 like fighting for change and against "the interests of the status quo."
"He can't be that out of touch with the struggles of American families," Obama said of Boehner. "And if he is, then he's got to come here to Racine and ask people what they think."
With the mid-term election approaching and polls showing the economy remains issue number 1, the White House is eager to demonstrate that they are focused on jobs and to convince voters that the steps the administration has taken so far, with the help of Democrats in Congress, have helped to put the economy on the right track.
The White House has launched "Recovery Summer", during which administration officials will be traveling all around the country highlighting infrastructure projects funded by the stimulus package and during the 40 minutes he spent answering six questions, the president spent some 13 minutes explaining and defending the stimulus package, which critics have said was too costly and has done too little to create jobs.
Still, officials admit there's a long way to go. Obama noted that Racine, where today's event was held, has the second highest employment rate in the state -- at 14 percent, and noted that he wanted to see the nation's economy growing faster, at 4% or 5%, to help create more jobs. Today he called on Congress to take additional steps to speed the recovery, from extending unemployment benefits -- noting that Republicans have been blocking a vote on this issue -- to helping small businesses get access to credit and providing aid to states.
The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed there was more pessimism about the economy in May than there had been since July of last year, with only 33 percent believing it would improve in the next 12 months. Sixty-six percent said the economy would get worse or stay the same.
States are still facing deficits that could lead to more job cuts and the Consumer Confidence Index fell precipitously in June, a bad sign in a country where consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of GDP. Despite five straight months of job growth, private sector job creation continues to lag. Even so, the president made a point in Racine of noting that the economy had added private sector jobs for five months in a row. Wall Street is bracing for a Friday jobs report that could show fewer jobs were created overall last month, as government census jobs disappear.
Boehner's office released a statement after the White House sent out excerpts of the remarks the president was to make in Racine.
"Attacking Republicans is a lot easier than explaining to the citizens of Racine, who face 14 percent unemployment, why one in every 10 Americans in our workforce is unemployed nearly 18 months after the president's trillion-dollar 'stimulus' spending bill was enacted," the statement read, in part.
It went on to say that the financial regulatory overhaul would "kill more jobs" and make matters worse in part because it does not include a revamp of Fannie Me or Freddie Mac, the government mortgage companies contributed to the financial crisis.