WASHINGTON – Seeking to align himself with a public beleaguered by economic uncertainty and frustrated by Washington, President Obama declared Thursday: "There is nothing wrong with our country. There is something wrong with our politics."
His toughly worded message -- he said there was frustration in his voice, in case anyone missed the point -- came amid a series of polls showing that people are disgusted with political dysfunction and are dispensing blame all around, including on Obama.
On his first official trip outside of Washington since being confined to the nation's capital for more than a month to deal with the debt debate, Obama said Americans were right to be worried about the country's 9.1 percent unemployment rate and the fluctuations in the stock market. The contentious and partisan debt debate in Washington this summer, he said, has done little to help.
"Unfortunately what we've seen in Washington in the last few months has been the worst kind of partisanship, the worst kind of gridlock, and that gridlock has undermined public confidence, and impeded our efforts to take the steps we need for our economy," Obama said during remarks at a factory that makes advanced batteries for alternative-fuel vehicles.
A Washington Post poll released this week showed widespread and deep discontent with Washington. Nearly 80 percent said they were dissatisfied with the way the country's political system works, compared with 60 percent in November 2009. Seventy-one percent said the federal government is mostly focused on the wrong things, up from 55 percent in October 2010.
Both Obama and congressional Republicans were targets of unhappiness, with only 19 percent of people polled saying that Obama had made progress in solving the country's major problems, and just 10 percent saying that about Republicans. At the same time, 28 percent said Obama had made things worse, while 35 percent said congressional Republicans had done that.
Obama sought to channel the public's anger in order to avoid being sunk by it himself. He urged Americans to tell Washington lawmakers they'd had enough with the bickering and stalemates.
"You've got to tell them you've had enough of the theatrics you've had enough of the politics, stop sending out press releases start passing some bills that we all know will help the economy right now," he said. "That's what they need to do. They've got to hear from you."
Despite Obama's calls for urgent action on the economy, Congress has left Washington for its August recess and Obama will soon follow for his annual summer vacation in Martha's Vineyard. But the president said he saw little reason to call lawmakers back to Washington.
"The last thing we need is Congress spending more time arguing in D.C.," he said. "They need to spend more time out here listening to you and hearing how fed up you are."
Obama urged lawmakers to get to work in September and pass a series of initiatives the White House says will spur job growth, including an extension of the payroll tax cuts, three free trade agreements and an infrastructure bank. The only thing preventing some of these bills from being passed, he said, were the refusal of some lawmakers to put country ahead of party.
"There are some in Congress right now who would rather see their opponents lose than see America win," he said.
The president's feisty remarks came after he toured a plant in western Michigan that makes advanced batteries for alternative-fuel vehicles such as hybrids or all-electrics. The White House has been touting spending on clean-energy technologies as a job creator, and the advanced batteries as a way to boost U.S. auto companies.
Obama won Michigan in the 2008 presidential election and the economically battered state is crucial to his re-election hopes in 2012.
Ahead of the president's arrival, Republicans criticized Obama for being more focused on saving his own job than solving the country's economic woes.
"Everything that this president does is either a fundraiser or a political move in order to advance his march to a second term," said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
GOP presidential hopefuls will be making their case for taking over the White House in a debate in Iowa Thursday night, just as Obama is scheduled to arrive in Manhattan later Thursday for a pair of $35,800-a-ticket fundraisers for his re-election bid.
A Democratic official said Obama was to speak at a reception with about 15 people at the Ritz-Carlton hotel and a dinner for 50 at a private home. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and movie producer Harvey Weinstein are the dinner hosts. The reception host is Gary Hirshberg, chief executive officer of organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm.
The $35,800 admission price is the legal maximum per person. Obama's campaign keeps $5,000 and the Democratic National Committee pockets the remaining $30,800.