President Obama ended his whirlwind two-day visit to the Twin Cities on Friday by letting rip a speech extolling the virtues of his priorities and achievements, while drawing sharp contrasts with Republicans heading into the high-stakes midterm elections.
"Instead of giving tax breaks for millionaires, let's give more tax breaks for working families," Obama told a crowd of about 3,500 cheering supporters at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. "Instead of protecting companies that are shifting profits overseas to avoid paying their fair share, let's put people to work rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our airports."
The president's 35-minute speech capped his Minnesota stay and came after a visit to an inner-city job-training program in north Minneapolis.
Obama is at a critical time in his second term, with Republicans seizing on his slumping national approval ratings and handing him defeats on everything from raising the minimum wage to workplace equality for women. Obama is anxious to ensure Democrats keep control of the U.S. Senate in the coming election, since a change would be a major blow to his hopes for significant accomplishments in his final two years in office.
Republicans are trying to frame Obama and his policies as out of touch with average Americans, highlighting new data showing sagging economic growth in the first three months of the year.
"Instead of coming to Minnesota to listen and consider a different approach on the struggling economy, it's clear President Obama's visit is all about doubling down on his failed, partisan agenda and pumping up Democrats ahead of a tough midterm election," Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short said.
Republicans also are doing all they can to tie Obama to first-term U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat who has supported many Obama policies and faces a re-election fight this fall.
"The fact of the matter is that Al Franken and Barack Obama have given America one of the worst economic recoveries in the history of the United States," said Tom Erickson, spokesman for GOP Senate candidate Mike McFadden.
Franken did not attend the Lake Harriet speech but earlier joined Obama at a north Minneapolis workforce development center. Franken and the president wanted to highlight the importance of addressing the nation's skills gap, in which jobs go unfilled because many too many applicants lack the necessary skills.
Franken said Minnesota has led the effort to have employers and educators forge partnerships that ensure workers get the proper training to fill available jobs. "I'm pleased the president is making this a national priority," Franken said.
Obama sharpened his criticism of Republicans, matching their intensified attacks.
"So far this year, Republicans in Congress have blocked or voted down every single serious idea to strengthen the middle class," Obama said.
"They've said no to raising the minimum wage. They've said no to fair pay," he said. "Some of them have denied that there's even a problem, despite the fact that women are getting paid 77 cents for every dollar a man is getting paid."
As the president went farther down his list, the crowd booed.
"Don't boo," he told them. "I want you to vote."
'Biggest challenge is turnout'
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said the president's visit is a huge energizer for the party, which will need a strong turnout to return Franken to the Senate and hand DFL Gov. Mark Dayton a second term.
"Our biggest challenge is turnout," said Ellison, whose district encompasses Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs. "My campaign, the lowest thing we are going to do is get me re-elected. Our real goal is to massively drive up the turnout."
Some of the attendees were longtime Obama supporters but said their anxiety about the economy and their personal finances brought them to Lake Harriet. Several said they wanted to hear that Obama understood their concerns, particularly when Washington seems consumed by foreign crisis and showdowns.
Nikol Williams, 42, quit her job as a medical assistant when child care costs for her three young kids outstripped her paycheck. She'd like to get back to work but doesn't see a way for that to happen.
"That's the battle we are dealing with," said Williams of Minneapolis. "I wish there was something that could be done."
LaDonna Meinecke is the daughter of a meatpacker who had what she considered a comfortable middle-class upbringing. She worries that the middle class is shrinking and that her children are less likely to have a comfortable life.
"There's a gap in the economy," said Meinecke, a social worker from Corcoran. "And I am really worried about it."
Obama came to Minnesota after Twin Cities wife and mother Rebekah Erler wrote to him about the hardships of raising a family coming out of the Great Recession.
Obama ate cheeseburgers with Erler on Thursday and sprinkled anecdotes of her life throughout his visit, including in his speech at Lake Harriet.
"It's amazing what you can bounce back from when you have to," she wrote in her letter to the president. "We're a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times."
Obama used Erler's story to make a larger point about the country.
"That describes the American people," he said. "We, too, are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times."
Republicans criticized Obama for highlighting Erler's story, noting that she was a Democratic field organizer in Washington state.
Obama urged Minnesotans to look past the cynicism that's infected politics.
"I know that our politics looks profoundly broken, and Washington looks like it's never going to deliver for you," he said. "I ran for office to make sure that anybody who is working hard to meet their dreams has somebody in Washington that is listening. And I'm always going to keep listening."
Staff writer Abby Simons contributed to this report.