Obama Uses Pa. Trip To Push Tax Cut Extension

At a high school in Scranton, Pa., Wednesday, President Obama exhorted Republicans in Congress to extend the pay roll tax cut. He said putting money in the pockets of working people is more important than partisan politics.

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Congress faces a deadline at the end of this month, a payroll tax holiday expires. President Obama says he wants to extend it, avoiding what he calls a tax increase and helping the economy. Republicans resisted at first, but now say they can accept the change, depending on how it's paid for. Yesterday, the president continued his campaign in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He told supporters that helping working people is more important than politics.

But the trip had its own political subtext, since he was speaking at a presidential battleground state. We start our coverage with NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: This was Mr. Obama's first visit to Scranton as president. But he's no stranger to the area, after losing a bruising primary to Hillary Clinton here four years ago.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I also want to bring greetings from a guy you know pretty well. A guy named Joe Biden.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama told a crowd at Scranton High School, Biden's roots as a native of their city had a formative influence on the vice president.

OBAMA: This is a town where he and so many of you grew up with a faith in an America where hard work matters, where responsibility matters. Where if you stay true to those things, you can get ahead.

HORSLEY: The searing recession has tested that faith. Scranton's unemployment rate of 9.7 percent is the highest in Pennsylvania.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

HORSLEY: Outside Redner's Warehouse Supermarket, a Salvation Army volunteer is collecting for the needy. Ellen Raino, who's carrying a few sacks of groceries, says plenty of people around here are hurting.

ELLEN RAINO: I lost my job. It went over to China two years ago. And went back to school, graduated in May, and cannot find a job in my field. So it's tough out there.

HORSLEY: Raino doesn't see a lot of relief coming out of Washington. But she doesn't blame the president. Mr. Obama won this county with a whopping 63 percent of the vote in 2008. And despite falling approval ratings, he still enjoys some reservoir of goodwill.

TED GRIFFITHS: I think that he's doing the best that he can. Don't forget, he can't do everything. It's up to the Congress and the Senate. So, I think he's doing OK.

HORSLEY: Ted Griffiths is a retired railroad worker. He thinks Mr. Obama's visit to Scranton will make a lasting impression on a lot of young people in this traditional Democratic stronghold.

GRIFFITHS: I remember when I was kid, I sat on the stage with Harry Truman when he came to Scranton here. And it was really something.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CLOCK BELL)

HORSLEY: Down the street, a former ice arena now houses medical clinics, a couple of military recruiting offices, and the Sacred Grounds Coffee Shop. Owner Louis Sowka is counting on falling temperatures outside to boost his sales of coffee and hot chili.

LOUIS SOWKA: We're not doing too well, but you know, thank God, people still drink coffee.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HORSLEY: Sowka acknowledges congressional Republicans have often tied the president's hands in the last year. But he also thinks Mr. Obama should have done more to help the economy early on, when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate. He's not sure who he'll be voting for next year.

SOWKA: Ooh, that's going to be a tough one. I believe there's even a lot of Democrats that are disappointed in what's going on. I think he's got a good shot if he tells us what he's going to do to change the economy. That's the number one thing. I personally haven't seen anything for it to get boosted. It needs to be boosted.

HORSLEY: Back at the high school, Mr. Obama counseled patience. He says it will take a few more years to address the problems that were decades in the making.

OBAMA: Scranton, we've taken some punches these last few years. But there's one thing I know about people here in Scranton, people in Pennsylvania, and people all across America: We are tougher than the times. We are America. We get back up...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: ...we fight back, we move forward...

HORSLEY: The payroll tax cut is an important symbol in the president's effort to appeal to working class voters. And Mr. Obama promised to keep fighting for it. Just like you, he told the people of Scranton, I don't quit.

Scott Horsley ,NPR News, Scranton, Pennsylvania.

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