ATLANTA — President Barack Obama complained on Sunday that partisan battles in Washington are holding back stronger U.S. economic growth as he tried to recover from one of the most difficult weeks of his presidency.
On a trip to Atlanta, Obama did not specifically mention the three controversies that engulfed his administration last week and raised questions as to how much of his second-term agenda he will be able to achieve.
His message was clear when he told Democratic donors that an American economic revival is being held back by a “tendency in Washington to put politics ahead of policy, to put the next election ahead of the next generation, and that mindset is what we need to change.”
Obama’s appearance in Atlanta came as he seeks to regain his footing from one of his worst weeks since taking office in early 2009.
His Internal Revenue Service was found to have targeted his political tea party opponents for special attention, new questions were raised about security lapses at a U.S. compound in Libya last year where four Americans were killed, and it was revealed that his Justice Department had obtained phone records from Associated Press reporters in a leak probe.
For now, voters seem not to be taking Obama to task. A CNN/ORC International poll released on Sunday showed 53 percent of Americans approve of the way Obama is doing his job, with 45 percent saying they disapprove.
Obama found solace in speaking to donors at an event that raised money for Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate, and at a commencement address to hundreds of African-American graduates at all-male Morehouse College.
To the donors, Obama said Washington needs to get beyond “the kind of short-term tactical partisan thinking that has come to so dominate” the U.S. capital and start trying to get some policy items completed.
He said he remained optimistic that an immigration overhaul is possible despite the tumult.
“It doesn’t mean there’s not going to be some rough and tumble,” he said. “If you get into this business, folks are going to take their shots as you, and I’ve got the gray hair to prove it. But that kind of stuff doesn’t bother me,” he said.
At Morehouse College, thunder rumbled overhead, lightning flashed in the distance and rain fell in buckets as Obama got personal about race.
He urged the students to think about how they can serve the wider community as they move on in life and not just focus on material goods.
“Yes, go get that law degree. But ask yourself if the only option is to defend the rich and powerful, or if you can also find time to defend the powerless,” he said.
Obama often speaks of how he wishes he could have had a father figure in his life growing up. His Kenyan-born father and Kansas-born mother divorced when Obama was a child, and he was raised by his mother and grandparents.
On Sunday, he was more personal than usual, saying his wife, Michelle, “has a long list of my imperfections.”
“My whole life, I’ve tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father wasn’t for my mother and me. I’ve tried to be a better husband, a better father, and a better man,” he said.
Obama said he ultimately hopes to be remembered not for his record as president but as a family man.
“I know that when I’m on my deathbed someday, I won’t be thinking about any particular legislation I passed, or policy I promoted; I won’t be thinking about the speech I gave, or the Nobel Prize I received. I’ll be thinking about a walk I took with my daughters, a lazy afternoon with my wife, whether I did right by all of them,” he said.
Obama urged the graduates not to make excuses for hard times that may come their way. He said he made his own share of mistakes growing up.
“And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down,” he said.
He said he has tried to use his abilities to help people less fortunate than himself.
“There but for the grace of God, I might be in their shoes,” Obama said. “I might have been in prison. I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family — and that motivates me.”
Nowadays, he said, people need to look beyond racism and discrimination in order to work together for a country that can compete around the world.
(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)