Obama Fires Opening Salvo In Fall Congressional Campaign

At a Labor Day picnic in Milwaukee, the president accused the GOP of blocking economic initiatives. He urged the sympathetic union audience to turn their frustration into political action in November.

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And I'm David Greene. Good morning. The fall congressional campaign season has officially kicked off. And President Obama fired the opening salvo yesterday in Milwaukee. Speaking at a Labor Day picnic, the president stuck to the economy. He accused Republicans in Congress of blocking popular economic initiatives. And he urged the audience to turn their frustration into political action in November.

Obama was speaking to union members who are generally supportive of his priorities. Overall, though, the president's approval numbers have been sagging. And he does not have the political firepower he once did. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama's been dogged all summer by rotten news from overseas. But the economic news here at home is actually pretty good. You might not know it to watch TV, he says, but the job market is enjoying its best six-month run since the late 1990s.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: More folks are working, the economy is growing stronger, the engines are revving a little louder.

HORSLEY: Greg Greer, who’s a member of the local laborer’s union, has seen that here in Wisconsin where construction cranes have begun sprouting up.

GREG GREER: We finally came back - 32 stories, 16 stories; Madison is booming, people coming from all over the country to work in the state of Wisconsin right now.

HORSLEY: But despite those encouraging economic numbers, more than 4 in 10 Americans say they're worse off now than when the recession began. Obama says what the country really needs is prosperity that's more widely shared.

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OBAMA: It's a good thing that the stock market's booming. You know, a lot of folks have 401(k)s in there. I want them to feel good. But I also want to see the guy who's breaking his back on two eight-hour shifts so he's got enough money to send his kids to college. I want to make sure that guy’s getting a break. I want to make sure he's getting some help.

HORSLEY: But nearly all the president's moves in that direction, like his push to raise the federal minimum wage, have been blocked by congressional Republicans.

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OBAMA: Every inch of it, we've had to work against a lock-step opposition that is opposed to everything we do. But it was worth it. Every gray hair is worth it.

HORSLEY: Obama notes even with gridlock in Washington, more than a dozen states have acted to raise their own minimum wages. And several more could do so this fall if voters approve minimum wage ballot measures in November. Democrats hope the issue will prompt some voters who might thought otherwise sit out the midterm election to show up at the polls.

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OBAMA: Because the only thing more powerful than an idea whose time has come is when millions of people are organizing around an idea whose time has come, millions of people are voting for an idea whose time has come.

HORSLEY: But it's not clear that Obama, the community-organizer president, can still inspire that kind of mobilization on a grand scale. With his approval ratings underwater, Obama did not spend Labor Day campaigning with any of the vulnerable Senate Democrats up for reelection. And the Democratic candidate for governor here in Wisconsin chose not to appear publicly with the present even though she was at the same Labor Day picnic. Still, organizing is what unions do. Jose Angel Negron is a retired member of the machinists union and he promised to do his part.

JOSE ANGEL NEGRON: Being a Latino myself, I've always tried to inspire everybody else in the Latino community to get out and vote because that's our voice. That's the only thing that we have is our voice.

HORSLEY: The president's own voice tried to strike a populist tone on Labor Day. Obama talked in folksy terms about brats and baseball and a vacation spot that's a little more homespun than Martha's Vineyard - the Wisconsin Dells.

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OBAMA: That's where Michelle and I used to take Malia and Sasha. We'd be in that water so long, fingers all pruned up. And there were a lot of little kids in there, which made you a little suspicious about the water; I'm just saying.

HORSLEY: Parents in the audience exchanged knowing smiles. But summer vacation is over now. The fall campaign is in full swing. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Milwaukee.

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