NORTH CHESTERFIELD, Va. — President Barack Obama wrapped up a three-day bus tour through two politically potent Southern states Wednesday, delivering a potential preview of a 2012 campaign theme: insisting he's trying to deliver a jolt to the moribund economy but is being thwarted by Republicans who want only to roll back financial and environmental regulations.
At Fire Station 9 here, Obama stood on a stage flanked by a yellow fire truck and two lines of uniformed firefighters and insisted that Republicans who vote against his $447 billion jobs package will owe the American people an explanation.
"They're going to have to come down here and tell folks in Virginia and all across the country why people are going to have to cope with fewer first responders, why your kids can't have teachers back in the classroom," he said, speaking without a teleprompter — his aides said because of the small venue. "You're going to have to look construction workers in the eye and tell them why they're sitting idle instead of rebuilding infrastructure that we know needs to be rebuilt."
But back in Washington, Senate Republicans showed little interest in embracing the jobs package, which includes $30 billion in aid to cities and towns to keep schoolteachers and firefighters on the job. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky took to the Senate floor to decry the bus trip, calling it "completely preposterous" for Obama "to be riding around on a bus saying we should raise taxes — on the very folks who create jobs."
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"Let's park the campaign bus, put away the talking points, and do something to address this jobs crisis," McConnell said. Republicans oppose the tax increases on millionaires that Obama proposes to pay for the package and say tax breaks should be considered instead.
Traveling aboard the high-tech black bus that Obama quipped was "not your normal RV," the president spent the final day of his trip in Virginia, a state he won in 2008 but where polls suggest he faces a steep climb to recapture what had long been a Republican-leaning state in presidential elections. A statewide poll in Monday's Richmond Times-Dispatch showed 51.5 percent of those surveyed unhappy with his job performance. The poll also signaled trouble against Republican rivals — he'd lose narrowly to Mitt Romney and is tied with Rick Perry.
The trip came amid press reports that Virginia Democrats were steering clear of the president: The state's Democratic House minority leader, Ward Armstrong, has sought to distance himself from Obama in an ad, asserting that a GOP rival's ad that compares him to Obama is a "stretch ... I'm pro-life, pro-gun, and I always put Virginia first," Armstrong says in the ad.
The White House pushed back against suggestions that Virginia Democrats were ducking the president — or that he was campaigning for anything but the jobs package.
"He is not out here campaigning for himself or for other candidates," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. "The president is focused on the important matter at hand, which is getting the American Jobs Act passed and signed into law."
He dismissed McConnell's criticism that Obama should not be out on the road.
"Presidents can and should get out of Washington on occasion to meet with ordinary Americans and hear from them about the challenges they face in this difficult economy," Carney said.
Michael Johnson, 53, a Chesterfield construction contractor and registered independent, said he's undecided as to whether he'll vote again for Obama. But he said he appreciated the pitch.
"A house divided cannot stand," said Johnson, who attended the firehouse event. "This Congress has got to start listening and do some of the things the president is talking about."
First lady Michelle Obama joined the president earlier in the day, lending her star power to announce before a military audience in Hampton, Va., that more than 250 U.S. companies have pledged to hire 25,000 veterans and military spouses by the end of 2013.
The commitment by the companies — including Tyson Foods, Coca Cola, Unilever and ConAgra — is part of Obama's challenge to the private sector to hire or train 100,000 post-9/11 veterans or spouses by the end of 2013.
Obama, who was preceded to the stage by his wife, noted that nearly 3 million service members have returned to civilian life in the past decade but that "there are far too many veterans who are coming home and having to struggle to find a job worthy of their talents."
"That's not right," he said. "It doesn't make any sense. It doesn't make sense for our veterans. It doesn't make sense for our businesses. It doesn't make sense for our families. And it doesn't make sense for America."
An advocacy group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, applauded the measure, noting that as of last month, the unemployment rate for new veterans stood at 11.7 percent.
Obama pressed for passage of the jobs package, but he kept his remarks at the military base devoid of the more partisan attacks he employed earlier in the week at stops in North Carolina amid crowds of fans when he accused Republicans of looking to confuse voters by saying his plan would raise taxes.
His jobs package includes incentives for hiring unemployed veterans, with a tax credit for hiring recently unemployed veterans and doubling an existing tax credit for hiring long-term unemployed veterans with disabilities.
Noting that Democratic and Republican lawmakers stood and applauded for the veterans measures when he introduced them before a joint session of Congress in September, Obama said, "I'm hopeful we can get both parties on board for this idea."
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