YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Lumping Republicans together as the "just say no" crowd, President Barack Obama challenged his critics on Tuesday to explain why they oppose his steps to fix the economy. Said Obama: "Tell us why doing nothing would be better for America."
In the latest campaign stop for his economic agenda, this one in struggling Ohio, Obama took concerted swipes at what he called the "unified, determined opposition of one party." He said it's not too late for bipartisanship, even as he criticized those he said were badmouthing his efforts.
"If the just-say-no crowd had won out – if we had done things the way they wanted to go – we'd be in a deeper world of hurt," Obama said, in the swing state of Ohio. Unemployment there is close to 11 percent, above the already-high nationwide average of nearly 10 percent.
The president came to explain and defend economic stimulus spending, and measures like tax credits and extended unemployment benefits he'd championed with mostly Democratic support in Congress. Without those measures, he said, "the steady progress we are beginning to see across America just wouldn't exist."
Republicans have opposed the steep cost of Obama's plans and criticized the pace of the promised recovery, particularly on the key measure of jobs.
His comments came on a day of closely watched primary elections in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, which shaped up as a referendum on incumbent Democrats – and to a degree the president.
Two Democratic senators backed by Obama – Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas – faced stiff challenges from fellow Democrats who argued the senators were not sufficiently loyal to party priorities. Specter was defeated while Lincoln was forced into a runoff against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter for her party's nomination.
The president is on a drive to show people that the country's economy is getting better, even as their individual situations may not be yet. He got out of Washington and donned a hard hat, goggles and a fire-retardant jacket while touring a hot, noisy plant where metal piping was being manufactured.
He acknowledged that some may not be impressed by a president swooping into town, when all they want to see is a headline saying: "You're hired."
Still, he tried to keep spirits up for employees at V&M STAR, a place he said is benefiting directly from his economic policies.
The parent company of the V&M is spending $650 million to build a 1 million-square-foot mill in Youngstown now that the nearby Norfolk Southern railroad is building a spur, thanks to money from last year's stimulus act. To applause from the assembled workers, Obama said it would be the biggest industrial plant built in the region since a GM plant went up in nearby Lordstown in the 1960s.
Overall, the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 3.2 percent in the first three months of this year. In April, payroll jobs grew by 290,000, the most in four years. The unemployment rate actually rose to 9.9 percent. But that was seen by some analysts as a positive sign, attributed to more people starting or resuming job searches, because they're feeling more optimistic about the job market.
Obama tried to blame Republicans for slowing the recovery with their opposition. "For all the things we've gotten done despite the unified, determined opposition of one party, imagine how much farther we could have gotten if I'd gotten a little help," he said.
The stop was the latest on Obama's White House_to_Main Street tour of towns and businesses, often in economically depressed regions.
The president was in Buffalo, N.Y., last week, and before that made stops in Allentown, Pa., Charlotte, N.C., Savannah, Ga., and Quincy, Ill.
His message has been consistent: The economy is beginning to recover thanks in part to his administration's policies, many of them unpopular with voters.
It's not clear that Obama's tour is doing much to turn around public sentiment. An Associated Press-GfK poll released Saturday found that just 35 percent of respondents said the country is heading in the right direction, the lowest measured by the AP-GfK survey since a week before Obama took office in January 2009. His approval rating remains at 49 percent, as low as it's been since he become president.
Associated Press writers Charles Babington and Ben Feller contributed to this report.