RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - In full re-election mode, President Barack Obama began a public relations blitz in Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's backyard, prodding Congress to adopt his $447 billion jobs package.
Cantor, Obama's chief congressional critic, held his own campaign-style event and said a White House "all-or-nothing" ultimatum won't work.
Seizing on a decisive issue for 2012 presidential race and control of the U.S. Senate, Obama and the GOP opened a national debate that will persist for 14 months until the election.
At the University of Richmond, the president called on the House GOP majority and Cantor in particular and exhorted nearly 9,000 people in the school's basketball arena to apply unrelenting pressure in support of the initiative he unveiled Thursday night before a joint session of Congress and a nationally-televised audience.
"I'm asking all of you to lift up your voices, not just here in Richmond but watching, listening, following online, I want you to call, I want you to email, I want you to tweet, fax, I want you to visit, I want you to Facebook, I want you to send a carrier pigeon, I want you to tell your congressperson the time for gridlock and games is over," Obama said, his voice soaring and his hand punching the air.
In a concession to the Republican House, Obama said the bill he will introduce in a few days would not increase the federal deficit. He said it would contain more than $250 billion in tax cuts aimed at small business and middle-income families. He put the onus on anti-tax Republicans not to eliminate a middle-class tax cut.
"That would hit middle-class families with a tax increase at the worst possible time," Obama said.
Faced with several Obama proposals that Republicans had embraced in the past, Cantor had no choice but to be far less defiant than he was with the president during the highly partisan disputes over raising the federal government's debt ceiling.
"There are a lot of things in his speech that reflect the kind of things that we're talking about, so that means there are areas of commonality," Cantor said, singling out Obama's small business tax cuts and an "infrastructure bank" to endow work to revitalize thousands of substandard roads and bridges.
But Cantor chafes at the president's insistence that Congress "pass this bill now."
"There is no bill yet, but I can tell the president that the all-or-nothing approach is something that hasn't worked in Washington over the last eight months," he said. "Let's admit that good people can disagree, but if we can commit to making sure that those disagreements don't get in the way of our ability to find agreement and actually produce results."
Cantor said he was confident House Republicans would stay firm against tax increases. And, addressing a few dozen employees at a suburban Richmond concrete plant, he said the president must be willing to rein in federal regulations that he said are strangling businesses and inhibiting growth, particularly those in the construction industry.
At Obama's rally, Democratic former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder said the president had finally found the right issue and reclaimed the invigorating style last seen in his 2008 campaign.
"You can feel it. He's enjoying it. He's in a position now to deal with the people," said Wilder, whose 1989 election in Virginia made him the nation's first elected black governor.
Though Friday's speech was an official White House event, it was unmistakably political, Wilder said. "I thought it was funny when he said, `We have to put the politics aside,' and I said, `When?"'
Former Gov. Tim Kaine, whose U.S. Senate campaign next year is largely dependent on Obama's ability to carry the battleground state of Virginia again, said he is comfortable fighting the campaign alongside the president on the jobs and economy issue.
"It's a very tested set of strategies that has had bipartisan support in the past," said Kaine, who served more than two years as Obama's hand-picked chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "You know, we need to do it and if anybody's going to be opposed to it, they're going to have some explaining to do."