SCRANTON, Pa. – President Obama sold his college-costs plan to audiences that were more than happy to buy it here and in Binghamton on Friday, but at the same time, it seemed the president was also seeking something else: support for some tough battles ahead.
Strong shots at Republicans served as the subplot of the second day of Obama’s bus tour of upstate New York and northeastern Pennsylvania, as he warned of a government shutdown –and worse – if Republicans don’t cooperate in the months ahead.
After numerous perils-of-Pauline crises that have pushed the government to the brink time and again over the first five years of his presidency, Obama seemed fed up with Republicans.
“I have not seen a policy come out of them that would actually help ordinary folks,” Obama said at Lackawanna College in Scranton, as Vice President Biden – a Scranton native – looked on approvingly.
Not surprisingly, Republicans were hard to be found at Obama’s official appearances, although Rep. Richard Hanna, a moderate Republican from Oneida County, attended Obama’s town hall meeting at Binghamton University, where he heard the president praise him as a “wonderful” congressman.
Otherwise, Obama offered no praise, and plenty of scorn, for the opposition party.
“They’re threatening to shut down the government and have another financial crisis unless, for example, we get rid of the health care reform that we fought to pass that’s going to provide millions of people with health care security for the first time,” an exasperated Obama said in Scranton. “That won’t create jobs, that won’t help our families.”
That government shutdown could happen as soon as Sept. 30 unless Congress and the president agree on a spending plan for the next federal fiscal year, or at least a stopgap measure until they can craft a fuller budget deal.
And it’s just one of two huge crises that the government could face this fall. Most likely in November, the government will again come close to breaching the federal debt ceiling.
The last time that happened, Republicans pushed the nation to the brink of defaulting on its debts – and it could happen again. Earlier this week, an aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the coming debt ceiling debate could be “a good leverage point” over which to fight for the defunding of Obamacare.
That prompted Obama to tell the crowd in Scranton: “Instead of focusing on what helps middle-class families succeed, they’re spending time arguing about whether or not we should pay the bills for things we’ve already spent money on.”
Such talk may only deepen the divide between Obama and conservatives, who took the president to task Thursday after he made similar partisan comments in Buffalo.
“Obama has, more than any other president in recent history, polarized this nation,” said Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo, who blamed “liberal giveaways” as unsustainable and the reason for such widespread disagreement over Obama’s policies.
Meanwhile, University at Buffalo political scientist James E. Campbell, a Republican, said the president can claim little in the way of accomplishment since the 2010 congressional elections.
“There has to be a growing consensus that things are not working out despite all these rah-rah speeches,” Campbell said.
You wouldn’t believe that if you just listened to Obama.
In both Binghamton and Scranton, he noted that the federal deficit has been cut in half since 2009 and that it’s falling at its fastest pace in 60 years.
“We don’t have an urgent deficit crisis,” he said in Binghamton. “The only crisis we have is one that’s manufactured in Washington, and it’s ideological.”
Similarly, Obama defended his health care law in both places, saying it’s already having the impact he intended.
“Health care inflation has gone down to the slowest rate that we’ve seen in a long time,” he said in Binghamton. “So we’re starting to get health care costs under control.”
Obama spent most of his time in Binghamton and Scranton touting the plan to control college costs that he unveiled Thursday in the University at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena, and in both places he was, in essence, preaching to the choir: speaking to college students who would benefit.
At his hourlong town hall meeting in Binghamton, Obama didn’t encounter one hostile question.
Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters gathered outside to decry hydraulic fracturing, the controversial natural gas extraction method that’s booming in Pennsylvania but prohibited in New York – just as they did in Buffalo, Syracuse and Scranton.
A heckler raised the “fracking” issue in Scranton, but the president didn’t address it.
“I’m not surprised that President Obama wanted to avoid the fracking topic,” said Rita Yelda, a local organizer with Food & Water Watch and New Yorkers Against Fracking. “After all, the past few days he’s seen with his own eyes the passionate movement against fracking throughout our state.”
While focusing on education in his formal appearances, Obama also took time Friday to enjoy a spectacularly sunny and comfortable summer day in upstate New York and northeastern Pennsylvania.
In Onondaga County, he stopped at a soccer practice at Tully Central High School.
“I was driving by and I thought … I’d like to kick the ball around a little bit,” Obama said.
And that he did, asking a boy to pass him the ball. When he did, the president balanced it briefly on his foot before setting it on the ground and kicking it back.
“He knew that I was too old for him to kick it hard,” the president said.
Then on his way to Scranton, the president stopped for pie at Bingham’s Restaurant in Lenox, Pa., where he asked the owner, David Scarpetta, if running the place was hard work.
“It sure is,” Scarpetta replied. “It’s not as hard as being president.”
“Awww,” Obama said. “I’ll tell you what, the only thing about you is you’re not term-limited.”
Of course, Obama is, but there’s much work to do before the end of this year, much less the end of his term in early 2017.
That being the case, Obama was every bit as serious in his official appearances as he was witty and charming in his unscheduled roadside stops.
There’s good reason for the seriousness, he said in Scranton.
“We can’t afford the usual Washington circus of distractions and political posturing and special interests and phony scandals,” he said. “We can’t afford that. We’ve got too much work to do.”
News Political Reporter Robert J. McCarthy and pool reports from reporters in Tully and Lenox, Pa., contributed to this report.