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President Obama signals a change after midterm loss

President Obama’s first domestic trip since his party suffered a drubbing in the midterm election offered a few clues as to how he will retool his message and governing style in the coming weeks.

Fresh off a series of foreign summits, Obama used his Tuesday visit here to signal a refocusing on domestic concerns, most significantly the prolonged economic downturn.

He toured a Chrysler plant that has added 250 hourly jobs in the last three months, part of a citywide rebound that local officials attribute to the federal auto bailout, among other measures.

Gone from Obama’s speech was any mention of Republicans driving the economy into the “ditch,” a metaphor he used throughout the midterm campaign. Instead, Obama called for the parties to coalesce behind a project: preserving the United States’ status as an economic superpower.

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“The election is over,” said the president, wearing a white shirt and tie but no jacket. “We have to find places where we can agree. We have to remember that the most important contest that we face is not between Democrats and Republicans; it’s between America and our economic competitors.”

Indiana is a microcosm of the challenges facing Obama. He won the state two years ago, proof of his appeal in traditionally Republican states. Since then, independent voters and other parts of his 2008 coalition have abandoned him, culminating in a Republican rout in the Nov. 2 midterm election. Republicans picked up the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh.

The statewide unemployment rate stands at 9.9%, higher than the national average, though there are pockets of resurgence.

Chrysler’s bankruptcy combined with other layoffs drove the jobless rate in the Kokomo area to nearly 20% last summer. But the auto bailout sparked a rebound, local and federal officials said, as dormant plants reopened and laid-off workers got their jobs back.

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Though still high, Kokomo’s unemployment had fallen about 9 percentage points as of October.

Citing the progress Kokomo has made in curbing unemployment, Obama said: “This is a reminder of what we can do as Americans when we come together, when we’re not divided, not spending all our time bickering, but instead focusing on getting the job done.”

When Americans last saw him traveling the country, Obama was in the thick of the midterm election campaign, delivering a sharp, partisan message aimed at minimizing Republican gains. He repeatedly accused Republican leaders of blocking progress and targeting him for political defeat — which voters supplied on election day, placing the House under Republican control for the first time in four years.

Now, Obama is rolling out a new message centering on pocketbook issues that the parties might solve together.

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Bayh said in an interview after Obama’s speech: “The difference was today he’s speaking like a president. It’s always a little bit different than when you’re just a candidate.”

Obama held out hope that he could reach agreement with Republicans over one of the most divisive issues before the lame-duck session of Congress: the George W. Bush-era tax cuts that expire at the end of the year. He warned that if no action was taken, a typical family would see its tax bill climb by $3,000.

He said he did not favor a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest families, but he hinted that he was open to compromise. He is scheduled to meet privately with Republican and Democratic leaders at the White House on Nov. 30, a likely forum for the tax negotiations.

Coming off a bitter campaign season, Obama showed a more genial side on this trip. It’s unclear whether he can recapture the sunny persona he displayed during the 2008 campaign. Nor is it certain whether Obama’s bipartisan overtures will impress Republicans who are optimistic about winning the White House in 2012.

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But Obama appeared eager to set a new tone.

He made a trio of unannounced stops in Kokomo. Accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, he had a lunch of club sandwiches and chips with a group of local firefighters.

“Everybody eat up,” he said. “Pretend those cameras aren’t here.”

In a visit to Sycamore Elementary School, waves of children grabbed his hand over and over as a smiling Obama worked a rope line.

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“He touched me! He touched me!” shouted a little girl in pink.

“He’s right up there!” yelled one boy.

peter.nicholas@latimes.com


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