President Barack Obama branded Republicans on Tuesday as electoral opportunists more concerned about their own interests than the people's, taking a political risk by escalating criticism of the very lawmakers he's urging to work with him.
The newly combative approach is a double-edged sword for Obama.
Fearful of losses in the November congressional and gubernatorial elections, Democrats have been urging Obama to throw tougher punches at Republicans. Those calls grew louder after the Democrats' stunning loss two weeks ago of a Senate seat in Massachusetts, seen as an indictment of Democratic control over Congress and the White House.
The president complied on Tuesday, choosing to do so in a state where two House seats and a Senate are in play this fall.
Citing examples, he took Republicans to task for switching positions on important issues just to score points with voters.
"You're out of patience with this kind of business as usual," he told his 1,600-member audience. "You want us to start worrying less about our jobs and more about your jobs."
But even if Obama notches some rhetorical wins, he risks alienating people at the same time.
As a candidate, Obama built a winning brand as a change agent. That outsider, reformer image is difficult for any politician to maintain once the messy obligations and barriers of governing take over; it is even easier to lose once the bare-knuckled zingers start flying.
What's more, Obama's sharper tone comes at a time of deepening voter ire about Washington's politics of division and inability to solve pressing problems.
Sensing opportunity, Republicans have taken note. Countering Obama's portrayal of himself as above the political fray, the Republican National Committee sent out video of what it called the president's "perpetual campaigning" of late.
So the White House is trying to tread carefully.
As Obama seeks to right his presidency and his agenda amid falling poll numbers and ballot box losses, he and his advisers have concluded that the gloves must come off more often. He intends to unleash more tough talk for Republicans in the coming weeks, under the theme that they, too, must be held accountable for solving the nation's ills, a senior administration official said.
Since last Wednesday's State of the Union address, Obama has held two campaign-style town hall meetings. In both he has called out Republicans for opposing him on health care, federal spending and other issues. He also spoke at a meeting of House Republican lawmakers, where both sides aired their complaints against the other, sometimes sharply.
The idea is to stop allowing Republicans to define the White House through their nearly unanimous opposition to Obama's proposals and to start using them as a foil to better define themselves, the official said.
As Obama put it Tuesday in New Hampshire: "You can't walk away from your responsibilities to confront the challenges facing this country because you think it's good short-term politics."
But he also will continue to reach out to Republicans, asking them to work with him and defining areas where cooperation may be possible. This serves two purposes: put Republicans on the spot, and show himself as a willing conciliator.
On Tuesday, as he has done almost daily since last week's State of the Union address, Obama made a play for bipartisanship. He urged the Republican minority in Congress to work with him and the Democratic leadership to overhaul education, energy and health care policies and take on crippling federal budget deficits.
"I can't do this alone. Democrats can't do this alone — nor should we," he said.
While he spoke there, the White House pressed the message on another front, releasing a letter from Obama to U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue asking for the leading business lobby's support for his jobs proposals.
"Understanding that we may not always agree on every issue or how to achieve the goals we all share, let us build on the progress we've seen and work together wherever possible," Obama wrote.
Yet even as Obama was reaching across the aisle with one hand, he pushed back with the other.
He said some of those who opposed last year's $787 billion stimulus package and who continue to argue that it isn't creating or saving jobs haven't shied away from taking credit back home for projects the bill paid for.
"They've found a way to have their cake and vote against it too," Obama said in New Hampshire, naming no one in particular.
He also criticized Republicans for opposing a bill to create a bipartisan commission on reducing the deficit. He said seven GOP senators who once co-sponsored the bill later voted against it.
It was jobs — or the lack of jobs — that brought Obama to New Hampshire.
The president talked about his proposal to take $30 billion from the bank bailout program and funnel it to community banks for lending to small businesses that need loans. Before the town hall, Obama toured one such business, ARC Energy in nearby Manchester, that is developing a more efficient LED light bulb.
The new Small Business Lending Program would be open to banks with assets of $10 billion or less — about 8,000 in all. Banks that ramp up small-business lending would see reductions in the dividend tax rate they owe the government.
Congress must pass legislation to create the program, one of several ideas Obama has been promoting to help small businesses, the creators of most jobs in the U.S.
Loven reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Ron Fournier contributed to this report.
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