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Obama criticizes GOP while calling federal deficit major concern

By Dan Lothian and Paul Steinhauser, CNN
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Obama calls Rep. Boehner 'out of touch'
  • President Obama holds town hall in economically struggling Racine, Wisconsin
  • He targets GOP's Boehner, Barton for criticism
  • Federal deficit a "real and legitimate" concern, president acknowledges
  • Wall Street reform bill needed to prevent another crash and recession, Obama says

Racine, Wisconsin (CNN) -- President Barack Obama acknowledged Wednesday that the federal deficit is a significant concern, but he also criticized Republicans for obstructing what he called commonsense legislation and siding with big business.

In a campaign-style speech and in answering questions from a crowd of about 1,400 people in economically hard-hit Racine, Wisconsin, Obama depicted Republican opponents as obstructionists to necessary progress for continuing recovery from what the president called "the great recession" that started under the previous GOP administration.

"We already tried the other side's ideas," Obama said, adding that the choice now facing the nation is to "return to the failed economic policies of the past" or to keep working to build a stronger future.

The event came a day after the stock markets tumbled following a report showing a slump in consumer confidence and signs of a bigger slowdown in the global economy, and two days before the Labor Department releases the June jobs report that could bring more bad economic news.

Economists are predicting that the economy lost 100,000 jobs in June, and that the 9.7 percent unemployment rate will climb by a tenth of a percentage point.

Video: Touting the economy in the Midwest

Obama said he remains unsatisfied with the low rate of economic growth and high unemployment, and he also called the growing federal deficit a "very real and legitimate concern."

"All of us should be worried about the fact that we have been running the credit card in the name of future generations, and somebody's going to have to pay that back," Obama said in response to a question on stimulus spending.

The deficit commission he appointed will be looking at ways to balance federal spending and revenues by adjusting "big ticket" items such as Medicare and Social Security, Obama said.

He touted financial reform legislation that is close to final passage by Congress, saying it would prevent a Wall Street crisis like the one that led to the recession from happening again.

Obama also criticized Republicans for what he described as obstructionism in Congress, noting that GOP senators currently are blocking a bill to extend unemployment benefits and tax credits to people and small businesses hurt by the recession.

In addition, Obama took aim at the House Republican leader for calling the Wall Street reform bill similar to "using a nuclear weapon to target an ant."

"He compared the financial crisis to an ant," Obama said of Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio. "The same financial crisis that led to the loss of nearly 8 million jobs."

A spokesman for Boehner said the House GOP leader was merely criticizing the Wall Street reform bill, rather than minimizing the economic situation, and Boehner issued a statement that called for Obama to address job growth and plug the Gulf oil leak instead of engaging in "childish partisanship."

"I wasn't minimizing the crisis America faced -- I was pointing out that Washington Democrats have produced a bill that will actually kill more jobs and make the situation worse," Boehner's statement said.

Obama also noted that another Republican House member, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, offered an apology to oil giant BP over the $20 billion fund it created to pay for damages from the Gulf oil disaster.

"He called it a tragedy that we had made them pay for the destruction they caused," Obama said of Barton, noting the comments were later taken back. "A tragedy is what the people of the Gulf are going through right now."

Addressing GOP criticism that Democrats always seek to expand the role of government and increase the burden on taxpayers, Obama said he doesn't believe the federal government alone can solve all the nation's problems and that it "can't and should not replace businesses as the true engine of growth and job creation in our economy."

However, he added that certain circumstances require government intervention or leadership, citing Social Security as an example.

The president's visit to Wisconsin came a week and a half after he traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to mark the groundbreaking of what the administration touted as the 10,000th road project to be funded by the politically controversial $862 billion economic stimulus plan.

That trip was part of the launch of the White House's "Recovery Summer," a six-week push to highlight what the administration says will be a summer and fall of job creation fueled by a new surge in federal stimulus spending.

The stimulus, which is formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, was designed to boost the country's economy by increasing federal government spending and cutting taxes. Critics have repeatedly characterized the plan as a budget-busting boondoggle that failed to sufficiently reduce unemployment.

No Republicans in the House and only three in the Senate voted for the bill when it was passed by Congress early last year.

This is the president's first trip to Wisconsin since last November, when he traveled to the state to discuss education. The most recent non-partisan public poll in Wisconsin, conducted in March, indicated that half the voters in the state disapproved of how Obama was handling his duties as president, while 44 percent said they approved of his job in the White House.

Sen. Russ Feingold, who is up for re-election this year, did not attend the Wednesday event. The three-term Wisconsin Democrat, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was taking part in the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.