WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is pushing his economic message in Ohio, brandishing his presidential megaphone in a politically important state to make certain his appeal to the middle class is heard amid the boisterous start of the Republican campaign for the White House.
Obama was traveling Wednesday to the most Democratic congressional district in Ohio, a Cleveland suburb, a day after Mitt Romney won Iowa's Republican presidential caucuses by just eight votes. Obama's trip signals the White House's intent to keep the president in the public eye even as the political world focuses on the GOP's selection process.
The White House's choice of Ohio for Obama's first presidential trip of 2012 underscores the state's high-profile role in presidential politics. It is a swing state that went for George W. Bush in 2004 and for Obama in 2008. A top manufacturing state, Ohio has seen its jobless rate follow the national pattern; unemployment was 8.5 percent in November compared with 9.6 percent a year before.
Obama set the tone Tuesday for a White House strategy that aims to maintain pressure on congressional Republicans while promoting an economic plan that serves as much as a policy prescription as it does a political platform for the general election.
Addressing Iowa Democrats by teleconference as the GOP caucus counting was still under way, Obama described Republicans as embracing a "theory that says we're going to cut taxes for the wealthiest among us and roll back regulations on things like clean air and health care reform, Wall Street reform, and somehow that automatically that assures that everybody is able to succeed."
"I don't believe that," Obama declared.
Pressing his economic agenda, Obama has said expanding the middle class is "the defining issue of our time." His spokesman, Jay Carney, on Tuesday called it "his No. 1 focus."
As defined by the president and by his advisers, his economic argument is that the middle class is facing a "make or break moment." On that score, Obama still has a few confrontations with Congress in the year ahead.
He still wants to extend a payroll tax cut for all of 2012. Republicans avoided being blamed for a tax increase last month when House GOP leaders agreed to a two-month extension. A longer version will have to be decided by the end of February. Obama is also likely to point to elements of a jobs package he advanced last year that failed in the face of Republican opposition.
Obama is also at odds with Senate Republicans over his nomination of Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a central feature of new bank regulations that Congress approved and Obama signed in 2010. Republicans are blocking Cordray's appointment, effectively hamstringing the bureau's work. Battling Wall Street overreach has been a recurrent Obama theme as he advocates for the middle class.
Signaling that he would continue to draw sharp lines between the middle class and the wealthy, Obama told the Iowa Democrats in his video conference Tuesday that he would insist on the rich paying more in taxes.
"If we're going to make the investments that we need for our kids at the same time as we're controlling our deficit, then there's nothing wrong with saying to millionaires and billionaires that we're going to let your tax cuts expire," Obama said. "The other party has a fundamentally different philosophy."
Administration officials say they were especially encouraged by the public's response to Obama's call for extending the payroll tax cut and indicate Obama will make such appeals repeatedly to gain leverage over Congress and Republicans, in particular.
"There are more things that need to be done," Carney said Tuesday. "There are elements of the jobs act that we believe, as we did from the beginning, merit bipartisan consideration and support. This country is in crying need of work on its infrastructure."
In speaking at Shaker Heights High School on Wednesday, Obama is returning to a Cleveland suburb that he visited in 2009 while pushing his health care overhaul plan. Obama also planned to meet with a family at their home, a tactic Obama has employed before to personalize his agenda.