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Obama Hits The Road To Reinforce His Message

President Obama, fresh from his first State of the Union address, vowed Thursday to fight for job programs and push his health care overhaul, as he traveled to Florida to announce $8 billion in federal stimulus money for a national high-speed-rail system.

The day after his prime-time speech, the president tried to reconnect with the public with a hard focus on the economy.

Obama and Vice President Biden held a town hall meeting at the University of Tampa to unveil the new funding and try to bolster flagging support for their domestic agenda and soothe Americans' economic anxieties.


"It's important to repave our roads; it's important to repair our bridges so that they're safe," he told students. "But we want to start looking deep into the 21st century."

He said the measure would create jobs immediately.

Under the administration plan, 13 rail corridors in 31 states will receive funds. Projects in California, Florida and Illinois are among the big winners.

In Wednesday's State of the Union, the president called for new job-creation measures, including a plan to raise $30 billion from Wall Street banks to help small business start hiring again after the worst recession since the 1930s. He reiterated the need to pump money into the economy to encourage job growth, but also announced a targeted freeze of government spending for three years beginning in 2011 in an effort to contain the deficit.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed a "pay as you go" measure aimed at curbing spending. Obama said he was grateful for the measure that would require new spending to be offset with cuts elsewhere in the budget.


Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid also said on Thursday that his party would unveil a major jobs package next week. Reid told reporters the Senate package would include long-term and short-term job-creation measures, and take a broad view of the unemployment situation in the United States.

Economists say that with U.S. unemployment hovering at 10 percent, the need to get Americans back to work and fuel the country's consumer-driven economy is imperative for a long-term recovery. The Labor Department reported Thursday that new claims for state unemployment benefits fell less than expected last week, fresh evidence of a weak job market.

The president on Thursday recalled coming to Tampa two weeks before the election.

"I said, 'Change never comes without a fight.' That was true then. It is true now," he said.

"I want the Republicans off the sidelines," he said, calling on them to help produce solutions to the nation's problems. "I want them with us."

But Senate Republicans balked at following the Democrats, who cast a party-line vote to increase the government's borrowing authority to $14.3 trillion, which would allow the Treasury Department to continue servicing the country's spiraling national debt through most of 2010.

The lines in the president's speech that drew the biggest applause from the university crowd, not surprisingly, dealt with education.

"We're not going to stop fighting to give our kids a world-class education, to make college more affordable, to make sure that by 2020, we have the highest rate of college attendance of any country in the world," he said.

The president said he had asked Congress to pass a bill giving families a $10,000 tax credit for four years of college and an increase in Pell Grants. He also said that upon graduation, former students should only be required to pay 10 percent of their income toward paying down student loans. After 20 years, education debt should be forgiven, he said, with debt forgiveness coming after 10 years for those who go into careers in public service.

"No one should go broke because they chose to go to college," he said to wild applause.

Despite Obama's remarks in the State of the Union speech, Sen. Jon Kyl, the Republican whip, who spoke with NPR's Steve Inskeep, said the president needs to take responsibility for the economy.

"I don't think the American people want a whiner who says, 'Woe is me.' It was a terrible situation, and more than a year after he was sworn in, he's still complaining about the Bush administration," the Arizona senator said.

In that speech, Obama renewed his commitment to a passing heath care overhaul, despite Democrats' having lost their all-important 60-vote majority when Republicans captured the Senate seat held by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

In Tampa, he vowed again to "not stop working for a health care system that works for the American people, not just the insurance industry."

Obama has the luxury of waiting until 2012 to seek re-election, while all 435 House seats and a third of the Senate seats are up for grabs this November. Some Democrats most nervous about the election are urging the administration to slow down, especially on the health care issue that has dominated Congress's attention for months.

In their post-speech commentaries, several Democrats ignored nearly all of Obama's remarks except those aimed at creating jobs, the biggest issue on voters' minds.

"His focus was right where it belongs: on jobs and the economy, and on reforming the financial sector," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI). "He acknowledged his own mistakes, and he avoided pointing partisan fingers."

Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, was less charitable.

If Obama is serious about improving the economy, Steele said, "he will give Republicans a seat at the table. If not, then we know that this is just more spin, arrogance and a refusal to listen to the American people."

The president travels Friday to Baltimore, where he will announce details of his small-business and wages tax cut, aimed at job creation.

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