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Obama: Fight for agenda

Photo by Charles Dharapak

Photo by Charles Dharapak

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama voiced determination Thursday to change the tone of Washington politics and urged Republicans to get "off the sidelines" and help fix health care and other problems.

Stopping on his way out of a town hall meeting in Tampa, Fla., Obama hammered again on his State of the Union message -- insisting that voters and politicians needed to "start thinking of each other as Americans first."

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were in Florida to announce $8 billion in federal grants for high-speed rail projects nationwide -- part of his push to combine spending on infrastructure with job creation.

Obama also used his first State of the Union speech Wednesday to push nervous Democrats to forge ahead on health care, despite voters' worries and opposition from newly strengthened Republicans.

On Thursday, he turned emphatically toward Republicans and implored cooperation.

"Our political dialogue in this country has always been messy and noisy," Obama told the crowd at the University of Tampa.

"We're all Americans. We all should anticipate that the other person, even if they disagree with us, has the best of intentions. We don't have to call them names. We don't have to demonize them."

Hanging over the Obama agenda and wobbly support among Democrats were fears fueled by events such as last week's stunning GOP victory in the Massachusetts Senate race.

That setback may have cost Democrats their filibuster-proof Senate majority, Obama said, but "we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills."

He accepted partial blame for the deep troubles facing his health care push, but he implored lawmakers to finish the task rather than yield to public opposition.

"The longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became," Obama told the joint session of Congress and a nationwide TV audience. But health care problems will continue for millions, he said, and "I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber."

House and Senate Democratic leaders are scrambling to see if they can salvage the ambitious health care package, which Republicans almost universally oppose. Obama offered no new strategies for overcoming the steep parliamentary and political hurdles they face.

The president devoted most of his speech to job-creation proposals, such as eliminating capital gains taxes on small business investment and extending tax breaks for businesses to invest in new plants and equipment. But those proposals also face uncertainty in Congress, where Senate Democrats say they may need a selective, piecemeal approach to win enough votes.

Obama said Republicans share a responsibility for governing, and he proposed meeting with their House and Senate leaders monthly. But his olive branch seemed brittle at times.