Obama previews his role in the presidential campaign as an attacker of Trump’s proposals
President Obama burst into the general election debate on Wednesday with a withering critique of Donald Trump and a defense of his own economic record, telling voters they shouldn’t be fooled by arguments that are untrue.
The president has been largely on the sidelines in the campaign so far, owing in part to his pledge of neutrality in the ongoing Democratic primary. But speaking from a Republican-leaning county in Indiana that he had visited twice early in his presidency, Obama offered up a feisty, policy-driven template for the eventual Democratic nominee, almost certainly Hillary Clinton, to use against Trump, the likely GOP nominee, in the fall.
Obama called Trump’s proposals on illegal immigration “a fantasy,” for instance, and said that although Trump would seek to capitalize on middle class voters’ economic anxieties, his prescriptions would do little to answer them.
“When I hear working families thinking about voting for those plans,” Obama said, “then I want to have an intervention. I want you to take a look at what they’re talking about here.
“If what you care about in this election is your pocketbook,” he said, “then the debate is not even close.”
In a nearly hour-long speech, delivered with his shirtsleeves rolled up while he stood behind a lectern bearing the presidential seal, Obama started by laying out a familiar Republican argument against him and Democrats, strikingly using their heated political rhetoric. People believe tales about “welfare queens,” “poor folks” and other “moochers,” he said, because cable TV and conservative talk radio is pumped into their bars and VFW halls.
Obama then plunged into a systematic takedown of their arguments, employing economic data and a laundry list of his own proposals that he said helped lay the groundwork for the recovery from the recession. And the city of Elkhart itself was a focus of that argument.
Obama first visited here in February 2009, a month into office and with the economy in freefall. Elkhart’s unemployment rate was 19% and climbing as a result of what he then called a “perfect storm of economic troubles” – a financial crash and longer-term decline in manufacturing that stalled the region’s economic engine, with ripple effects in the local economy and housing market.
Now, unemployment here has dropped to near 4% and the RV industry will set all-time production highs, with complementary trends in education, housing and other quality-of-life measures. Obama was eager to draw a connection between those numbers and his initiatives.
“America’s economy is not just better than it was eight years ago; it is the strongest, most durable economy in the world,” he said. “We can make it even stronger and expand opportunity for even more people. But to do that, we have to be honest about what our real challenges are.”
Obama’s effort to set the record straight was not only about the campaign, but also about ensuring that voters and government leaders make smart decisions after he leaves office, the White House said.
“This is not the last time that a president and a Congress will be faced with some consequential decisions about how best to advance our economy,” he said. “If we acknowledge and recognize that we’ve made progress in the last seven years, and no community in the country is a better illustration of that than Elkhart, then we should take a look at what policies made that progress possible.”
Republicans accused Obama of painting an incomplete picture of the last eight years.
Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana said Elkhart’s remarkable bounce back also benefited from “pro-growth policies pursued by the state of Indiana” – under Republican Govs. Mitch Daniels and now Mike Pence.
“Today’s visit by President Obama should not be about glad-handing but should instead be a celebration of Elkhart’s strong work ethic and renewed economic success,” he said.
The Republican National Committee was happy to tie Clinton to Obama.
“Hillary Clinton is running on four more years of Obamanomics, so the president is trying to convince voters his record of weak growth, stagnant wages and a shrinking middle class is really a success story,” spokesman Michael Short said.
One challenge for both Obama and the eventual Democratic nominee is selling voters on the idea that Democratic policies can continue to boost the economy for all Americans, said Jared Bernstein, who served as the chief economist for Vice President Joe Biden at the start of the administration.
“When someone asks me how the economy is doing, my answer is, whose economy are you talking about? If you go to Wall Street, things are going to look different than if you go to Main Street,” he said. “You have to go to the heartland as well. And I think Elkhart is an important microcosm in that regard.”
What Obama did not do Wednesday was name Trump, nor Clinton or her rival for the nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. But some allusions were unmistakable.
“If we turn against each other based on divisions of race or religion, if we fall for a bunch of ‘okie-doke’ just because it sounds funny or the tweets are provocative, then we’re not going to build on the progress we’ve made,” he said, a clear reference to Trump.
Trump, in a rally Wednesday night in Sacramento, suggested he’s prepared to return fire.
“Well, if he campaigns, that means I’m allowed to hit him just like I hit Bill Clinton, right?” said Trump as the crowd cheered while standing in an aircraft hangar outside Sacramento International Airport.
The president’s vigorous delivery seemed to surprise even some in a supportive audience of more than 2,000. Some at times responded to his arguments by shouting, “Preach!” A few even called out with pleas that he run for one more term, or at least serve one more year.
“The Constitution prohibits it, but more importantly Michelle prohibits it,” he responded at one point.
For more White House coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter.
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