President Obama took an aggressive, populist tone in a speech in Ohio today, telling Americans that he ran for president to confront challenges "once and for all."
Mr. Obama used the word "fighting" thirteen times in the speech, which he delivered at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, and the word "fight" an additional nine times. He told his audience "these are difficult and unsettling times."
He dug in his heels on the health care fight, signaling that he is not abandoning efforts to pass legislation he says he took up to ease the burdens on many Americans. He also took on critics who say the health care fight has distracted him from the economy, saying "all I think about" is creating jobs.
And he urged Congress to pass a new jobs bill that he said would put Americans to work, provide tax breaks for small businesses and help people make their homes energy efficient.
The speech may offer hints as to the tone the president will take in his State of the Union address next Wednesday. Mr. Obama has adopted a more populist stance in recent weeks, and on Thursday called for tougher regulation on a banking industry he said he is prepared to fight.
"So long as I have some breath in me, so long as I have the privilege of serving as your president, I will not stop fighting for you," the president said in Ohio. He added: "I will take my lumps."
After stating that many Americans are grappling with rising costs and falling home values, Mr. Obama said he wants to make absolutely clear that he "did not run for president to turn away from these challenges."
"I didn't run to kick these challenges down the road," he said, his voice rising. "I ran for president to confront them once and for all. I ran for this office to rebuild our economy so it works not just for the fortunate few, but for everybody who's willing to work hard in this country."
How the president's populist rhetoric is received could be a key factor for Democrats as they try to win back independents who have gravitated to the GOP over the past year in advance of the 2010 midterm elections.
When Mr. Obama turned his attention to the health care fight, he acknowledged that he ran into "a little bit of a buzz saw this week."
He said that was in part because "this process was so long and so drawn out -- this is just what happens in Congress."
"I mean, it's just an ugly process," said the president. "You're running headlong into special interests, and armies of lobbyists, and partisan politics that's aimed at exploiting fears instead of getting things done. And then you've got ads that are scaring the bejesus out of everybody. And the longer it take, the uglier it looks."
He went on to say that while Washington pundits are "all in a tizzy" trying to interpret the effect of Republican Scott Brown's election to the Senate on the health care bill, the political parties and the president, the effort is ultimately "about you."
"I didn't take this up to boost my poll numbers – you know the way to boost your poll numbers is to not do anything," he said. "That's how you do it. You don't offend anybody. I'd have real high poll numbers. All of Washington would be saying, 'What a genius!'"
" I know there are some folks who think if Obama loses, we win," Mr. Obama continued. "But you know what? I think that I win when you win. That's how I think about it."
The president promised to "keep on fighting for real, meaningful health insurance reform," saying he "is not going to walk away just because it's hard."
"We are going to keep on working to get this done -- with Democrats, I hope with Republicans -- anybody who's willing to step up," he said. "Because I'm not going to watch more people get crushed by costs or denied care they need by insurance company bureaucrats. I'm not going to have insurance companies click their heels and watch their stocks skyrocket because once again there's no control on what they do."
He went on to detail fights he's had in his time in office so far – including over deceptive practices in the financial sector, equal pay and education – and then said he "can promise you, there will be more fights in the days ahead."
"We're having a fight right now because I want to charge Wall Street a modest fee to repay taxpayers in full for saving their skins in a time of need," he said. "We want our money back. We want our money back. And we're going to get your money back, every dime -- each and every dime. But it's going to be a fight. You watch."
He said his critics will accuse him of pushing "big government" for advocating regulatory reform, when he "just want[s] to have some rules in place so that when these guys make dumb decisions, you don't end up having to foot the bill."
"That's pretty straightforward," he said. "I don't mind having that fight."
During the question-and-answer period following his remarks, the president elaborated on that point, saying he understands who people have become "mistrustful" of government.
"We don't need big government, we need smart government," said the president, adding: "It can't be this constant ideological argument. People need help. We need to provide them a helping hand. That's what we stand for."
Mr. Obama concluded in his remarks that trips like this one remind him of "the strength and the resilience and the perseverance of the American people."
"I'm reminded of the fundamental character of the Americans I am so privileged to serve," he said. "It's that character that has borne our nation through the roughest of seas, a lot rougher than the ones we're going through right now. That's the character that will carry us through this storm to better days ahead."
At the end of the question and answer period, the president went back to health care, saying that while the basic ideas in the House and Senate bills are ultimately simple, "when you put it all together, it starts looking like just this monstrosity."
"And it makes people fearful," he said. "And it makes people afraid. And they start thinking, you know what, this looks like something that is going to cost me tax dollars and I already have insurance so why should I support this. So I just want to be clear that there are things that have to get done. This is our best chance to do it. We can't keep on putting this off."
The president said that health care, left unchanged, will "gobble up more and more of your paycheck," and added that "Medicare will be broke in eight years if we do nothing."
"We can't sort of start suddenly saying to ourselves, America or Congress can't do big things; that we should only do the things that are noncontroversial; we should only do the stuff that's safe," he said. "Because if that's what happens, then we're not going to meet the challenges of the 21st century. And that's not who we are. That's not how we used to operate, and that's not how I intend us to operate going forward."