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President Obama delivers a speech Friday at the Lake Harriet band shell in Minneapolis. Obama used the friendly venue, top right, to unload on Republicans, accusing them of doing the bidding of the rich and powerful at the expense of that nation’s middle class.  Pioneer Press: Ben Garvin
President Obama delivers a speech Friday at the Lake Harriet band shell in Minneapolis. Obama used the friendly venue, top right, to unload on Republicans, accusing them of doing the bidding of the rich and powerful at the expense of that nation’s middle class. Pioneer Press: Ben Garvin

On friendly ground at site in Minneapolis, Obama pulls no punches in GOP criticism

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It was billed as an economic policy address, but President Obama used a friendly venue Friday in Minneapolis to unload on congressional Republicans, accusing them of doing the bidding of the rich and powerful at the expense of middle-class Americans.“Sometimes I’m supposed to be politic about how I say things, but I’m finding lately I just want to say what’s on my mind,” Obama told a ticketed crowd of 3,500 at the Lake Harriet Band Shell. When he arrived Thursday in the Twin Cities, the president said he felt “super loose.” He continued to let it all hang out during his final speech to an enthusiastic lakeside audience before flying back to Washington at noon.

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“So far this year, Republicans in Congress have blocked or voted down every single idea for strengthening the middle class,” he said.

They have said “no,” he asserted, to raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing equal pay for women and extending unemployment insurance to more than 3 million Americans whose benefits have expired.

“Rather than invest in working families getting ahead, they actually voted to give another massive tax cut to the wealthiest Americans,” he said, accusing them of keeping in place “things (that) help those at the top and don’t help you.”

Republicans hit back, saying Obama’s policies are making it even harder to create jobs.

“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 in a statement.

“With recent news that the economy contracted worse than originally thought and America’s middle class is no longer the world’s richest, it’s clear President Obama’s policies still aren’t working and the country needs a new direction.”

With Gov. Mark Dayton and other top Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidates in the audience, the event appeared more political rally than policy forum.

The president repeatedly said during his 30-minute speech that he was fighting for the struggling middle class, the same theme Dayton and other DFL candidates have been sounding all year.

He praised Minnesota for being one of 13 states to increase the minimum wage this year, a move Dayton and DFL lawmakers are touting as a signature accomplishment.

He defended his controversial Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, saying more than 8 million Americans got health insurance through the program, including 180,000 Minnesotans.

“So here in Minnesota, you can now say the women are strong, the men are good-looking, the children are above average, and 95 percent of you are insured,” he joked.

Americans can’t wait for an obstinate Congress to act, he continued. “That’s why I’m moving ahead without them.”

He chided House Republicans for planning to sue him for abusing his executive power. “They’re not doing anything, and then they’re mad at us for doing something,” he said.

Minnesota Republicans have criticized the minimum wage increase as threats to business growth and the state’s MNsure version of Obamacare as broken and wasteful.

It was Republican House Speaker John Boehner who announced plans to sue the president for exceeding his authority. Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said that it is Obama and Democrats who are blocking House-passed bills to create jobs. “The president keeps doubling down on policies that have failed to increase prosperity,” Steel said.

Nonetheless, Obama asserted he still wants to work with congressional Republicans on boosting the minimum wage, making sure women get fair pay and reforming immigration.

“I want to work with them, but they’ve got to give me something. They’ve got to try to deliver something, anything,” he said.

Obama concluded by saying, “I’m here to tell you, don’t get cynical … America is making progress,” he said. “Hope is a better choice.”

Obama’s speech won predictably favorable reviews from people who showed up to hear him.

Honora Rodriguez of St. Paul said it’s tough for her young family to get by on her salary as a librarian at the South St. Paul library. Her husband, Daniel Rodriguez, stays home weekdays to take care of their newborn daughter, Subi, and works weekends at a group home for the disabled.

They saw more than a bit of themselves in Rebekah Erler, the St. Anthony working mother of two preschoolers whom Obama highlighted Thursday.

“We very much identify with her and her struggles,” Daniel said.

“We’re a young family,” Honora said. “The president actually kissed our baby. It was great.”

Some Republicans were quick to point out Erler’s political work for Democrats, noting she had worked on the campaign of Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington in 2004, a fact confirmed by Erler’s online resume at LinkedIn.com.

“Most media won’t expose President Obama’s fraud lunch guest,” wrote state Rep. Pat Garofalo, a Farmington Republican, on Twitter.

Bryant Cooper of St. Paul, a music and business student at McNally Smith College of Music, said Obama’s presence alone at Lake Harriet made the lake part of history.

“That he came down to see (the flooding caused by recent heavy rainfall), that was awesome,” Cooper said. “To have it here, this makes it a historical spot now.”

Fellow McNally Smith student Lizette Fonseca, a scheduler at an interpretation agency, said Congress could find more middle ground with the president. “Instead of hating on him, let’s help him … and share the credit, like he said.”

The speech capped a two-day visit to the Twin Cities by the president, which started Thursday with a town hall gathering at Minnehaha Park, a stroll down Grand Avenue and then remarks at a fundraiser to benefit congressional Democrats.

Obama started his morning Friday with an unannounced stop at a Minneapolis job training center, where he and Labor Secretary Tom Perez joined nine young mothers training for customer service jobs.

“All of us start at different places. I was basically raised by a single mom,” Obama said, adding that like these young women, his own mother benefited from grants and programs that enabled her to support her family.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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