President Obama began a two-day visit to Minneapolis on Thursday sharing cheeseburgers with a local working mother and bringing a middle-class message tailor-made to aid Democrats fearful of massive losses in the upcoming election.

Obama said he shares the frustrations of Minnesotans who went to college, work hard and still struggle to buy homes, pay for child care and dig out from student loan debt.

"You are the reason I ran for office," he told a crowd of about 350 people gathered for a town-hall forum near Minnehaha Falls. Early in his life, he said, "I was you guys … You are the ones I am thinking about every single day."

Obama talked about progress his administration has made curbing greenhouse gases and making college more affordable but devoted much of his time to the need for a higher minimum wage as well as equal pay and benefits for women. Those issues resonate strongly in Minnesota, where Gov. Mark Dayton and a DFL-controlled Legislature enacted the largest minimum-wage increase in state history this year and approved a menu of economic protections for women in the workplace.

"The idea that they would not be paid the same or not have the same opportunities ... is infuriating," Obama said of female workers. "If you are doing the same job, you should get the same pay. Period. Full stop."

Republicans have sharply criticized the president's push for a federal increase in the minimum wage, saying it will cause businesses to shed jobs across the county at a time when the economy is teetering. They are loading up on new data that the economy is showing fresh signs of dramatically slowed growth, although in Minnesota unemployment is in the low single digits.

Republicans hammered the president for talking to a friendly crowd in Minnesota that did not press him on the economy or other recent troubles in Washington.

"While President Obama is out surveying the economy his policies have failed to rejuvenate, hopefully he will take the opportunity to consider a different approach," Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short said.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn, said the real reason Obama came to Minnesota is to raise money for congressional Democrats, highlighting the president's appearance at a high-dollar fundraiser.

Mom's moment of frustration

Obama said his visit was prompted by a letter sent by Rebekah Erler, a 36-year-old working wife and mother of two preschool-age boys.

Earlier this year, Erler, in a moment of frustration, wrote to Obama: "I'm pretty sure this is a silly thing to do, to write a letter to the president. But on some level, I know that staying silent about what you see and what needs changing never makes any difference. So I'm writing you to let you know what it's like for us out here in the middle of the country."

Erler wrote of a weakened housing market hitting her family hard, causing her husband's construction business to fold. After moving from Seattle to Minneapolis, Erler's husband is back working in the remodeling industry. Erler took out student loans to go to a local community college for retraining and now works as an accountant. In October, the couple bought their first home, in St. Anthony.

Erler's story feeds into a narrative that both political parties are trying to leverage during the upcoming campaign: The Great Recession is over, corporate profits are up and the stock market is surging, but many middle-class families continue to struggle.

Before the forum, Obama joined Erler for a famed Jucy Lucy cheeseburger at Matt's Bar in south Minneapolis. He surprised guests, going from table to table, shaking hands and even posing for a picture.

"It was very heartfelt, and what she said just kind of touched a nerve," Ben Erler said of his wife's letter. "It was all her idea. I think after a long day, that night she sat down and just wanted to say something."

Don Fleming, a 56-year-old maintenance worker for the Minneapolis parks, said the president's call for a higher minimum wage resonated with him. He makes more than the minimum wage but hopes an increase will push his pay higher.

"I have never seen anything like it in my life," said Fleming, who never imagined he would be so close to the president. "He's real good. And I think he is doing the right things, helping the lower class."

'Hope is better'

Town-hall attendees relished the chance to ask what was on their minds. "He didn't have canned answers," said Ellena Schoop, a 52-year-old state technology worker wearing a union shirt. "It's important for people to be reminded of: We're way better off than we were before. And no, we didn't get everything we wanted to get done. But don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

Obama urged Minnesotans not to get in the doldrums over the seemingly relentless bad news out of Washington. He said despite all the partisan political warring, his administration continues to make progress on issues that middle-class Americans care about most. "Cynicism is popular these days," Obama said. "Hope is better."

Obama raised the possibility of surprise business drop-ins before he leaves town early Friday afternoon. Shortly after leaving the town hall, he headed to St. Paul's Grand Avenue for caramels, ice cream and other goodies. "Every once in a while, I break loose," he said. "I am feeling super loose today."

About 60 people attended the fundraiser at the Minneapolis home of Sylvia and Sam Kaplan. The couple are major Obama contributors, and Sam Kaplan was an ambassador to Morocco. Obama brought the conversation back to his lunchtime chat with Erler, saying she embodied the "spirit of dignity and optimism and kindness" that he saw in the letter.

"In the end what matters is how hard we fight for the folks that sent us and people who in most cases inspire us to get involved in politics in the first place," Obama said. "That's what this is about and it's useful for us to remember that because if we do, we're gonna win."

On Friday, the president's last scheduled appearance is a speech at the Lake Harriet Band Shell.

Staff writers Rachel E. Stassen-Berger, Emma Nelson and Jim Anderson contributed to this report. 651-925-5044 651-925-5043