Obama, in Scranton, blasts the GOP

In his Scranton talk, President Obama called picking Joe Biden as his running mate the "best decision I ever made politically." Biden accompanied him.
In his Scranton talk, President Obama called picking Joe Biden as his running mate the "best decision I ever made politically." Biden accompanied him. (MATT ROURKE / AP)
Posted: August 25, 2013

SCRANTON - President Obama blasted congressional Republicans on Friday for threatening to shut down the government and cause "another financial crisis" in their drive to dismantle his health-care law and block an increase in the debt ceiling this fall.

"I have yet to see a policy come out of them that helps ordinary folks," Obama said at Lackawanna College, where he wrapped up a two-day bus tour touting proposals to make higher education more affordable for the middle class.

Vice President Biden, a Scranton native, joined the president on the fifth anniversary of the day Obama chose him as running mate.

"It's not all Republicans, but there's a strong faction, who instead of focusing on what's helping middle-class families succeed, they're spending time arguing about whether or not we should be paying the bills for things we already spent money on," Obama said. "That's not going to help our economy."

Obama embarked on his bus tour during a tough political time: his approval rating is below break-even (down to 35 percent on handling of the economy, per Gallup); there are foreign policy crises in Syria and Egypt; and the prospect looms of brinksmanship with a hostile Congress over the budget and the national debt ceiling.

Obama has been hitting the road to take his case to the people in recent weeks, hoping to battle the lame-duck blues.

With its blue-collar roots, Scranton is usually friendly Democratic territory. But it has struggled to recover from the great recession, and unemployment remains high. Obama was not universally greeted as a conquering hero.

"Our families are out of work, and all the president continues to do is tour the country like Bruce [Springsteen], as though seeing his face is some kind of prophetic inspiration," State Rep. Kevin Haggerty, a Scranton-area Democrat, wrote on his Facebook page before the president's visit.

"Forget the speech, Mr. President," Haggerty wrote. "We are not dumb. . . . We are tired of being appeased."

The Scranton-Wilkes-Barre metropolitan area has had Pennsylvania's highest jobless rate for 39 consecutive months; it currently is 9.2 percent, well above the national average, according to the state labor department.

Outside the Lackawanna College gymnasium, a handful of pickets protested hydrofracturing, the method of blasting natural gas from shale; at one point during Obama's remarks, a woman shouted, "Ban Fracking!"

Biden took to the stage to introduce Obama, reporting, "My son Beau is fine" to applause. Beau Biden, the Delaware attorney general, was hospitalized for tests at a noted cancer center in Houston after becoming dizzy and disoriented last weekend during a trip to Indiana.

"I love this guy - he has heart; he cares about people," Obama said of the elder Biden, adding that picking him in 2008 as his running mate was the "best decision I ever made politically."

Biden aides have been talking up his plans to run for president in 2016, and the moment was a chance for the vice president to enjoy some of the love Obama gave Hillary Clinton in a 60 Minutes interview and a White House luncheon honoring his former secretary of state.

She is already considered the front-runner for the Democratic nomination - if she chooses to run, that is. Biden's aides say he also is considering a 2016 presidential campaign, which would be his third.

"This gives the president a chance to balance the scales a little bit," said Ed Mitchell, a Democratic political consultant in northeastern Pennsylvania. "I'm sure he wants to stay neutral."

At one point during his remarks, Obama took a shot at GOP Gov. Corbett, though not by name: "Let's face it, here in Pennsylvania, there have been brutal cuts - not just to higher education but to education generally."

"If the president is looking for someone to blame for education cuts, he should grab a mirror," said Mike Barley, Corbett's campaign manager. "It's his one-time funds from the failed stimulus package that artificially increased the education budget to unsustainable levels." Corbett has allocated more state money to education than any other Pennsylvania governor, Barley said.

Earlier, in downtown Scranton, Dominic Saadi said he thought Obama's focus on higher education was crucial, but he did not have much faith the plan would become a reality. Republicans in Washington, he said, engage in "gratuitous obstruction" simply because an idea comes from the president.

"Something's got to be done with education," Saadi, owner of the City Cafe Mediterranean restaurant downtown, said in an interview before Obama's visit. "The working class and the middle class have to be able to be educated," he said. "It's the bedrock of our society. We have too much polarization of wealth in this country."

Saadi said he voted for Obama but had often been disappointed by how the president has been "compromised." Guantanamo Bay should have been closed by now, Saadi said. He was also troubled by recent revelations about the National Security Agency's tracking of domestic e-mail data under Obama's watch.

"The surveillance - he's worse than Bush. They say if you're not doing anything wrong, you'll be OK, but the burden shouldn't be on me," Saadi said. "We are supposed to be free as citizens."

Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718, tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.inquirer.com/bigtent.

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