RICHMOND, Va. -- His jobs speech out of the way, President Obama opened a road show Friday to sell his ideas to the public, urging voters to send a "carrier pigeon" to Congress if need be to build grass-roots momentum behind his $447 billion jobs package.
Speaking to a friendly crowd in the University of Richmond's basketball arena, Obama stuck with a simple message. He called on lawmakers to "pass this bill," a phrase he repeated throughout the 26-minute address. Obama imbued the speech with an energy that was conspicuously lacking during the prolonged debt ceiling negotiations over the summer, bringing the audience to its feet when ticking off reasons for passing the "American Jobs Act."
"If you want construction workers on the work site, pass this bill," said Obama, who removed his suit coat for the occasion. "If you want teachers in the classroom, pass this bill. If you want small-business owners to hire new people, pass this bill."
In a challenge to Republican lawmakers, he said, "Prove you will fight as hard for tax cuts for workers and middle-class people as you do for oil companies and rich folks. Pass this bill! Let's get something done!"
Obama said he would send the bill to Congress next week, vowing that it would be paid for but offering few specifics as to how that would happen. Obama's proposal is a mix of tax cuts to spur hiring and juice consumer spending; school and road construction projects to put people to work right away; and unemployment insurance benefits.
Reiterating a point in his speech Thursday before a joint session of Congress, Obama said many elements of the plan have been embraced by Republicans in the past.
"Every kind of proposal in the American Jobs Act -- every proposal to put more workers on the job, more money in their pockets -- every single one of these proposals has been supported by Democrats and Republicans before. And so they should be supporting them now."
White House aides said that they chose Richmond because it is close to Washington and the capital of an important swing state. But the city is also the home turf of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a key Republican lawmaker who will help decide the fate of Obama's jobs package.
At one level, Obama's appearance was a show of force. He dropped into Cantor's district and drew an ebullient crowd of nearly 9,000, sending a message to a leading Republican politician who has sought to block much of the White House agenda.
Before the president arrived, the crowd chanted his name-"O-BA-MA!" One person held up a sign reading, "4 More Years."
In a bit of counter-programming, Cantor also planned an appearance in Richmond on Friday -- not to attend the Obama event but to deliver his own jobs speech. Writing an op-ed published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Friday, Cantor said he was open to compromise.
"There will be some areas where we agree, and some where we don't," Cantor wrote. "Good people can disagree. But Virginians, like most Americans, expect us to act responsibly and work together so that the economy can grow and people can get back to work."
Obama took note of Cantor's conciliatory gesture.
"To their credit I was glad to hear some Republicans, including your congressman, say they see room for us to work together," Obama said. "They said that they're open to some of the proposals to create American jobs. Look, I know that folks sometimes think they've used up the benefit of the doubt. But I'm an eternal optimist."
He urged patience, though, saying he inherited an economy that was too weak to turn around in a matter of months or even years.
"This has been a long slog, dealing with this economy," he said. "And I know that when I came into office, everybody was thinking, 'Well, six months and we'll get this all solved.'"
The theme was jobs, but Obama also previewed a plan he'll submit to a congressional super committee that is examining ways to reduce the deficit over the long haul. Obama said he'll revive the plan he failed to achieve in negotiations over the summer: a "grand bargain" that would pair spending cuts with tax increases on wealthier households.
"Should we keep tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, or should we put teachers back to work?" Obama said. "We can't afford to do both. We have to make real choices about the kind of country we want to be. That's not class warfare."
In rolling out the jobs package, the White House has applied some of the hard lessons learned in past policy skirmishes. Obama's habit has been to stand back and let Congress take the lead in shaping legislation, creating ambiguity about precisely where he stands. This time the White House has drawn up its own plan.
The White House is not making predictions about how many jobs his proposals would create, hoping to avoid another incorrect economic forecast. In 2009, Obama's economic team produced a report asserting that the original stimulus bill would keep unemployment below 8 percent. The claim helped Obama sell the bill, but it proved inaccurate. Unemployment stands at 9.1 percent.
An open question is whether Obama can keep a sustained focus on passing the jobs bill. Throughout his term he vowed to focus on jobs, only to be diverted by crises at home and abroad. White House advisors say they will not let that happen again, but unforeseen events have a way of hijacking the president's agenda.
Obama's appearance kicked off a coordinated campaign to pass the jobs bill. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Friday was to visit a bridge renovation project in Washington to reinforce Obama's call for improving the nation's bridges, roads and schools.
Next week, Obama will visit Columbus, Ohio, returning to a swing state that is one of the great prizes of the 2012 campaign.
By Peter Nicholas
McClatchy-Tribune News Service