DETROIT — Surrounded by thousands of labor union members chanting “four more years,” President Barack Obama began a high-stakes campaign to jump-start the struggling economy with a broad range of job-creation programs. The coming proposals, he said, will show whether Republicans in Congress “can put country before party.”
Obama, who is scheduled to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress on Thursday, told the Labor Day rally of auto workers, health care employees and school teachers that he will present a far-reaching jobs plan aimed at winning bipartisan support.
“I still believe both parties can work together to solve our problems,” he told the crowd at a chilly parking lot near the General Motors headquarters. “Given the urgency of this moment, the hardship people are facing, folks have got to get together.
“But we’re not going to wait for them,” he added. “We’re going to see if we’ve got some straight shooters, see if congressional Republicans can put country before party. We’re going to give them a plan and say, ‘Do you want to create jobs? . . . Show us what you’ve got.’ “
The remarks came as the president attempts to restore public confidence in his administration’s ability to create jobs, boost the economy and avoid another recession. Republican opponents have hammered Obama since Labor Department figures released last week showed zero net jobs created in August and the national unemployment rate holding steady at 9.1 percent.
The situation is even worse in Michigan, where unemployment stands at 10.9 percent. Some in the crowd of about 13,000 carried signs reading “America Wants to Work!”
But Obama used Detroit and the revitalized auto industry to try to remind people of White House successes there and to energize his base. He touted his administration’s decision to bail out two of the top three auto manufacturers — GM and Chrysler — shortly after he took office in 2009. And he held up Detroit as an example of how a city can survive tough economic times.
“Like the commercial says, this is a city that has been to heck and back,” Obama said. “And while there are a lot of challenges here, I see a city that’s coming back. You ask people here if times are tough and they say, ‘Yeah, it’s tough, but we’re tougher.’ … I don’t know about you, but I’m not scared of tough times. I know we don’t quit.”
Republicans have pressed Obama for details on his jobs plans and have vowed to oppose any new spending proposals at a time when both parties are working to reduce the nation’s spiraling debt.
The president did not announce any new ideas in Detroit, telling the crowd members that he wants them to “tune in Thursday night.” Instead, he repeated previous calls on Congress to extend a payroll tax cut and to put construction workers back to work building roads and bridges.
“Labor is on board. Business is on board. We just need Congress to get on board,” Obama said. “Let’s put America back to work.”
Some labor leaders have been critical of Obama, including AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, who has recently demanded that the president be bolder in his jobs proposals even in the face of stiff Republican opposition.
Trumka, along with Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, flew to Detroit with Obama on Air Force One. Speaking to the crowd before Obama took the stage, Trumka had praise for the president.
“He’s the man who worked with auto workers to save America’s auto industry,” Trumka said. “That’s the kind of bold, courageous action we need right now.”
Solis acknowledged that the economic conditions in Detroit and elsewhere are “still tough for too many workers” and added that “Congress needs to work with us to take common-sense action.”
The rally at times felt like a campaign event, with enthusiastic supporters wearing Obama buttons and hats. Several times, the crowd chanted “four more years” and waved four fingers in the air.
At one point, Obama quoted a speech that Harry S. Truman gave in Detroit on Labor Day in 1948, in which he said that when labor thrives, so does the rest of the nation. The text was given to Obama aboard Air Force One by Sen. Carl M. Levin, D-Mich., who said afterward that he wanted to give the president “a give-’em-hell kind of speech.”
Obama will need a strong turnout from labor supporters to help him win re-election in 2012, and Teamsters President James P. Hoffa urged the crowd to turn out at the polls in force.
“There is a war on workers and you see it everywhere,” Hoffa said. “You see it in unemployment, you see it in the tea party, in people who fight what we believe in. President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march and, President Obama, we want one thing: jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.”