Tampa, Fla. (AP) - Trying to bury a year of polarization, President Barack Obama on Thursday escalated his appeal for politicians and voters alike to settle differences without tearing each other apart. His plea: "Let's start thinking of each other as Americans first."
Obama made sure to weave that message throughout his stop in Florida, one otherwise intended to promote his economic agenda by announcing $8 billion in high-speed rail awards.
Coming one day after his State of the Union address, and one day before meeting with House Republican leaders with whom he continues to battle, Obama's emphasis on civility was a nod to political reality. He needs Republicans more than ever to get his agenda passed, and he is getting saddled with more public blame for the partisanship he promised to change.
"Nothing that human beings do will be perfect," Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, said as he capped a town hall at the University of Tampa, where he was received with boisterous support.
"But we shouldn't sort of assume that the other side is either heartless or doesn't care about sick people or is some socialist/communist who's trying to take over the health care system," the president said. "We start getting into these caricatures. They're so damaging."
Just how far to go in working with Republicans has been an evolving calculation for the White House. Obama ended up muscling through a giant economic stimulus plan with little help from the opposition party and was poised to do the same on major health care legislation until Democrats lost the super-majority they need -- 60 votes -- to overcome delays in the Senate.
Obama takes responsibility, but not blame.
He still casts Republicans as a party of "no" and calls that their political strategy.
"I want the Republicans off the sidelines. I want them to work with us to solve problems," Obama said. And then he added: "I don't want an attitude `If Obama loses, then we win.' I mean, that can't be a platform. ... All of us should be rooting for each other."
Party divisions arise less over goals -- the main one for both parties is jobs -- then how to achieve them. Those policy discussions are even more difficult in this midterm election year, when leaders weigh what's better: working together or targeting the other for defeat.
Obama's challenge is to pull together enough unity to get results this year on weighty items -- economic growth, Wall Street regulation, energy and the embattled health care. A Gallup Poll has found him to be the most politically polarizing president in recent history.
He has also acknowledged a problem in connecting with people, one that left them with a "remoteness and detachment" as he pursued a policy agenda meant to help the middle class. In turn, Obama has focused his rhetoric lately on making clear he is out fighting for people.
Following up on his State of the Union pledge to work with the GOP, Obama will address House Republicans Friday in Baltimore, where lawmakers are holding their annual retreat. He'll also tour a small business in the same city and announce a new job-creation proposal.
The proposal would give companies a $5,000 tax credit for each net new worker they hire in 2010. Businesses that increase wages or hours for their existing workers in 2010 would be reimbursed for the extra Social Security payroll taxes they would pay.
No company could reap more than $500,000 from the combined benefits, one of several features meant to tailor the program more to small businesses than to large corporations. Startup companies could receive half that amount. Existing companies could not close down and then reopen under a new name and receive any benefits, White House officials said Thursday.
The program, which needs congressional approval, would end on Dec. 31, and carries an estimated cost of $33 billion. Administration officials proposed funding it with money repaid to the government from the 2008-09 bank bailout program.
The Social Security system would not lose any revenue under the plan, administration officials said.
The House rejected a similar proposal last month, although Senate Democrats have warmed to the idea lately. House Republicans, meanwhile, hinted they would have questions about the effectiveness of Obama's plan.
Associated Press writers Tamara Lush in Tampa and Charles Babington in Washington contributed to this report.
President Barack Obama on Thursday escalated his appeal for politicians and voters alike to settle differences without tearing each other apart. His plea: 'Let's start thinking of each other as Americans first.'