Child care, student loans, wages, the economy. These were some of the issues President Obama addressed Wednesday at ImaginOn in uptown Charlotte. But the overall focus of the town hall-style meeting was on women.
President Obama began his remarks by having a little fun with the fact he was speaking at a children’s library.
"I was just hanging out with the Cat in the Hat," he joked.
But right down to the long bookcase that served as a backdrop, the reason ImaginOn was chosen was clear. Every visible book cover had something to do with kids and family. As to why a library in Charlotte was chosen? Charlottean Diana Jolly wrote the president a letter, part of which he read to the crowd.
"As part of the middle class, I know what it feels like to work hard every day. And even with a college education and a full-time job, find it harder and harder to make ends meet."
President Obama said he wanted to answer that question in person. And his answer began with a good, old- fashioned stump speech.
"Our businesses have created over 12 million new jobs over the past five years. The unemployment rate has fallen from 10 percent right when I was coming into office to 5.5 percent. More kids are graduating from high school. More kids are attending college." And, President Obama added, more Americans know the security of health care because of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
But this wasn’t just a “what’s in our rear-view mirror” speech. The president also pitched key planks in his proposed budget, like tripling the maximum child care tax credit to $3,000 per dependent for families with incomes up to $120,000.
"I want to cut taxes for more than 5 million middle class families who need help paying for child care. I want to cut taxes for more than 8 million families and students who need help paying for college," he said, by making it simpler to claim education tax benefits. "I want to cut taxes for 13 million low-wage workers" by expanding the earned income tax credit.
And the president came with North Carolina specifics – take child care.
"In today’s economy, having both parents in the workforce is an economic reality for many families. But in 31 states, including North Carolina, high quality child care costs are higher than a year of tuition at a state university."
All this is part of what President Obama sees as building the economy from the middle out. That is not what the president sees as the Republican priority. Pointing to a proposal in Congress that would give tax breaks to not just the top 1 percent but the .01 percenters.
"It would affect about 5,000 families all across America. It would cost $270 billion. Here in North Carolina it would benefit precisely 120 households. For $270 billion, which is the cost, approximately, of the tax breaks that I’m giving to 44 million people."
This was not a president trying to build consensus with a Congress controlled by political rivals. This was the nation’s most prominent Democrat drawing a deep line in the sand to showcase the ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans. And that continued when President Obama took his first question of the day, from moderator Lisa Stone, about the proposed Paycheck Fairness Act. The legislation would try to remedy the fact women on average earn less than men doing the same job.
LS: "Why is the Paycheck Fairness Act failing and does someone dispute the existence of the pay difference?"
POTUS: "The reason we haven’t gotten it done is because Republicans in Congress have blocked it."
Asked about efforts to try to raise the minimum wage, President Obama again pointed at Republicans. He then brought up companies that were starting to raise wages on their own - Costco, Gap and recently, Walmart. "Now once Walmart is paying people more," the president quipped, "you know that something is happening."
And there was this question from blogger Erin Odom:
"Now I will tell you my husband is a public school teacher; I’m a blogger. We make significantly more money on a mommy blog than he makes as a public school teacher."
She wondered what President Obama and the federal government could do to boost teacher pay in North Carolina. Not much, the president said, since teacher pay is largely controlled by states. But that doesn’t mean he was quiet on the issue.
"This used to be the state in which the promise of education was understood at the state government level and the reason North Carolina did better economically than many in of the other Mid-Atlantic and Southern states was because of the Research Triangle and the emphasis on education."
That comment drew the ire of Governor Pat McCrory. "I was disappointed to learn that the president used a portion of his quick visit today to unfairly and incorrectly malign our education system," McCrory said in a press release, citing last year’s teacher pay increase.
Congressman Robert Pittenger wondered: “If the Paycheck Fairness Act was good, common-sense legislation, why didn’t President Obama have it passed when he had full control of the House and Senate?”
But these won’t be the last words on President Obama’s trip to Charlotte – and they may not be the most influential. Yesterday’s event was co-sponsored by websites SheKnows and BlogHer. The audience was largely women with their own blogs. Women are a key demographic in national politics and one that may matter most to an aspiring president, Hillary Rodham Clinton.