CANNON FALLS — President Obama played both offense and defense Monday during an outdoors town hall meeting here in southeastern Minnesota.
Going on the offensive, he openly criticized his GOP presidential opponents and the Republican members of Congress at the first in a three-state swing of political events the president says are aimed at discussing rural job growth.
But Barack Obama also vigorously defended the role of government in Americans’ lives and criticized the gridlock and anti-tax rhetoric that has gripped Congress the past six months — most easily seen in this summer’s debt ceiling negotiations.
He also pointed to last week’s GOP presidential debate — while noting that “it’s not election season” — to highlight the Republican candidates’ intractability when it comes to revenue increases, even if paired with 10-to-1 spending cuts.
Obama stresses ‘balanced approach’
“That’s just not common sense,” Obama told a friendly crowd of about 500 at a riverfront park here. “Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton — the last time we had a balanced budget — all of them understood that you have to take a balanced approach to solving our deficit and debt problems.”
The president answered questions from concerned Minnesotans on a wide range of topics, including the constitutionality of the federal health care reform law, potential reductions in Medicare benefits, the federal debt crisis and cuts to education spending.
Obama repeatedly tried to restore the public’s faith in government programs and criticized the politics that often blocks reforms and new government efforts. “The problem isn’t the programs — it’s the politics,” he said. “Don’t buy into the notion that government is holding us back.”
The president directly took to task conservative elements in Congress that he says played “partisan brinkmanship” with the debt deal in an attempt to gain points in the 2012 elections. He said Republicans who attempted to block the debt deal “would rather see their opposition lose than America win.”
Instead, Obama pointed to enormous American efforts like the interstate highway system and sending a man to the moon to highlight what government can do for its citizens.
He also called for future investment in the nation’s infrastructure as a way to put people back to work and discussed a rural jobs council headed by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak that’s working toward helping rural communities catch up in small-business growth and broadband access.
He touts compromise and unity
Obama noted Americans’ uneasiness with the recent stock market turbulence and rating downgrade but stressed that compromise and unity would help the nation persevere. “I want all of you to understand,” he said. “There is nothing that we’re facing that we can’t solve with some spirit of America first; a willingness to say … we’re going to choose country over party, we’re going to choose the next generation over the next election.”
Large investments in America’s future are fundamental to her belief in Obama, said Carole Heffernan, who worked on his 2008 campaign and intends to do so this time.
“America has always done big things, and I’m tired of people in Washington saying we can’t,” she said after the event. “I have never heard [the president] give a speech where he said, ‘I will.’ It’s always, ‘We can.’ “
Before the rally, however, those unhappy with Obama were on hand.
Republican protesters — including Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Minnesota GOP Chairman Tony Sutton – said Obama’s meetings in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois are nothing more than “Obama taxpayer-funded campaign stop[s].”
In fact, his speech did little to discourage the notion. “I’m not here to enjoy the nice weather,” Obama said of the beautiful day. “I’m here to enlist you in a fight, a fight for our future.” The Midwest stops most likely are meant to wrest some national attention away from the Republican candidates and regain momentum lost during the intense partisan negotiations.
Protesters appear early
Earlier, dozens in downtown Cannon Falls protested the president’s presence.
Although some protesters were happy that Obama was coming to a small Minnesota town for the first time, many just wanted him gone — back to Washington to start creating jobs and cutting taxes.
“We’re excited for this rally. We’re not excited the president is going to be here,” said Cindy Maves, a member of the Rochester Tea Party Patriots, before the GOP gathering. “I just think it’s important that everyone gets the message that we’re not happy with the job that he’s doing.”
Signs reading “President Obama, where are the jobs?” and “I can see 2012 from my house” clashed with those from Obama supporters lining the streets. A truck dragged a fake giant bull with signs supporting Rep. Ron Paul, the conservative Texas presidential candidate, around the rally.
Heffernan had strong words for the Republicans who turned out against Obama and her fellow Democrats. “I would say to the GOP that … just because I disagree with some of their policies doesn’t make me un-American,” she said. “I am a person who loves their country just as much as anybody else on this planet.”
Cannon Falls bustling
In all, Cannon Falls, pop. 4,000, was hopping for Monday’s presidential visit. Businesses that are typically closed on Mondays opened early, and hundreds who missed out on getting a ticket — or wanted to protest — lined the streets in the morning.
After the event, the president ate at a small downtown eatery that was packed long after his exit, and he met with supporters before his departure for Decorah, Iowa.
Obama was upbeat in his opening remarks to the cheering crowd.
“Hello Cannon Falls! Hello Minnesota!” he yelled as he walked on to a small stage surrounded by picnic tables. The president introduced Gov. Mark Dayton — who he campaigned for at the University of Minnesota last October – as well as Democratic members of Minnesota’s congressional delegations.
“It was great to see his energy, and I hope he feels ours,” said Naomi Estes-Tullo, a Cannon Falls Township resident whose husband asked a question. “We need to get rid of this hopelessness.”
Obama plugged a “balanced” mix of spending cuts and revenue hikes to close the nation’s deficit and touted the benefits of federal health care reform. When questioned about rural job growth and other economic development, he pointed to such proposals as tax credits for companies who hire veterans, increased access to capital, patent reform and an extension of reduced payroll tax withholding.
But, perhaps the most important question came from a small girl at the end of the event: “Why Cannon Falls?”
Obama joked he always liked to take a question from the next generation and answered, “I had heard that Cannon Falls has some of the smartest, best-looking kids around, and you’ve confirmed that rumor about the outstanding kids of Cannon Falls.”