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Obama takes jobs pitch to N.H.

Promotes budget, voices frustration with GOP

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / February 3, 2010

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NASHUA - Promising jobs and asking for patience, President Obama yesterday pitched his economic plan to a receptive New Hampshire audience, defending his proposals to cut deficits and ease unemployment even as lawmakers back in Washington picked apart his budget blueprint.

“Because there’s no magic wand that will make economic problems that were years in the making disappear overnight, it’s easy for politicians to exploit the anger and anguish folks are feeling right now,’’ Obama told a crowd of about 1,600 at Nashua High School North, acknowledging that “folks here in New Hampshire have been tested by the last two years.’’

Obama backers fill the gym while foes form a shadow town hall. A5.

The economic situation could have been much worse, Obama said, if his administration had not shepherded the financial bailouts and $787 billion stimulus program so reviled by his Republican opponents. “Because of the steps we took, the markets have stabilized. No one’s worrying about another Great Depression like they were a year ago,’’ Obama said.

The setting was reminiscent of an Obama campaign event, with supporters jamming the auditorium, thrusting their cellphones in the air to take photos, and interrupting several times with applause. Some came to be inspired, but others said they just wanted reassurances they were being heard and legislative action would follow politicians’ words.

“I’ve been frustrated, like a lot of people - not necessarily at him, but just that things can’t seem to get fixed,’’ said Linda Polewarczyk, 51, a teacher at Nashua High School South. “I mean, it’s both sides, right? Somebody needs to start to get stuff done.’’

While Obama repeated his calls for bipartisanship, his message had a campaign edge and, at times, an accusatory undertone toward Republicans, who have succeeded in holding up health care overhaul, climate change legislation, and other items on Obama’s wish list.

During a question-and-answer session, the president somewhat derisively referred to GOP efforts on health care, suggesting Republicans did not understand that improving coverage comes with a price tag. “You got a better idea, bring it on,’’ Obama said.

He noted Republicans voted nearly unanimously against the federal stimulus bill, then appeared at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for projects it funded.

“They’ve found a way to have their cake and vote against it, too,’’ he said, drawing chuckles and applause.

And when Obama backed a bipartisan commission to find ways to cut the long-term deficit - including reexamining popular entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security - a handful of Republican sponsors switched their positions and joined in filibustering it, the president said.

“This failed by seven votes, when seven Republicans who had cosponsored the idea suddenly walked away from their own proposal after I endorsed it,’’ an exasperated Obama told the crowd. “I said, ‘Good idea.’ I turned around, they’re gone. What happened?’’

Obama has pledged to create the commission by executive order, but some Republicans have threatened to boycott it, concerned that the commission would recommend raising taxes.

The town hall-type meeting in Nashua was the latest in a series of events across the nation in which the president has sought to recapture some of the exuberance so evident in his 2008 campaign and to counter the energy surging through the GOP ranks since the surprise election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts last month.

The president did make at least one concession to his critics. He agreed that he did not, as he had promised during the campaign, allow C-SPAN cameras to record all the health care negotiations.

“I think it’s a legitimate criticism’’ to note that not all discussions were made public, Obama told a questioner. “I made that commitment. I probably should have put it on C-SPAN.’

New Hampshire has been kind in recent elections to Democrats, voting for Obama in the 2008 general election and sending a Democratic senator and two Democratic House members to Washington. But voter anger over the economy and Washington politics have rejuvenated the GOP, which stands to take back both US House seats and retain Judd Gregg’s Senate seat this fall, said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

“Republicans are mad, and if you’re mad, you’re going to get out and vote,’’ Smith said. “Democrats are mad, but they don’t have anybody to go out and vote against.’’

The president yesterday detailed a plan to help expand lending to small businesses through tax cuts and assistance to community banks. Under the program, $30 billion in returned cash for the Troubled Asset Relief Program would be made available to help smaller banks lend to local businesses.

“We’re going to start where most new jobs do - with small businesses,’’ he said. “These are the companies that begin in basements and garages when an entrepreneur takes a chance on his dream or a worker decides it’s time she became her own boss.’’

Back in Washington, Republicans resisted the initiative, saying the returned TARP money should be used to pay down the deficit, estimated to reach a record $1.6 trillion this year.

“TARP is not a piggy bank,’’ said Gregg, one of the chief negotiators of the TARP law in 2008. “TARP worked as intended during the financial crisis, but the crisis has passed and the program is no longer needed.’’

Both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill took issue yesterday with Obama’s $3.8 trillion budget plan for fiscal year 2011, with GOP lawmakers denouncing proposed tax increases and the deficits and Democrats questioning some of the spending cuts.

But in Nashua, questioners’ concerns were far more basic: jobs, energy independence, and health care - all Obama priorities he is struggling to get through Congress.

Obama repeated his strong hopes that some health care legislation would be completed, despite the election of Brown, who said he would vote against the plan. It would be easy, Obama said, to pass the popular parts of the health care overhaul, such as banning insurance companies from denying coverage based on preexisting conditions.

That’s not fair to insurance companies, Obama said, unless nearly everyone has insurance. Otherwise, people will “game the system’’ and get insurance only after they become very sick.

“We’re essentially on the 5-yard line,’’ Obama said of the health care effort. “We just have to make sure we move methodically and the American people understand what’s in the bill.’’