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Obama enlists Minnesotans for economic fight

Standing in front of the Cannon River, President Barack Obama speaks to about 500 Minnesotans Monday morning. He urged those at a Cannon Falls town hall meeting to join him in fighting for a better economy. River Towns photo by Chad Richardson1 / 2
River Town photo by Chad Richardson2 / 2

CANNON FALLS, Minn. -- President Barack Obama asked Minnesotans attending a mid-day "town hall" meeting in a tranquil riverside park to get involved fixing what he called Washington's "broken" politics.

The Democratic president, in what many called his first campaign swing of a re-election bid, urged the 500 people gathered in along the Cannon River to tell members of Congress: "It is time for games to stop. It is time to put country first."

The word "compromise" has become a dirty word, he said, pointing mostly at Republicans, but saying that also has applied to Democrats.

Federal programs like Social Security are not broken, he said, "politics are broken."

Bright sunshine and mild temperatures greeted Obama in Cannon Falls, the first stop on his three-day Midwestern bus tour.

"What a spectacular setting," said Obama, wearing a white shirt with his sleeves rolled up. "Let's get the grill going. Do a little fishing?"

Under towering black walnut and elm trees, Obama talked for 15 minutes, then answered questions for the rest of nearly an hour.

The 500 in the audience waited three hours for Obama to arrive.

"This is outstanding. And how you can be 25 feet from the president of the United States is fantastic," said Mark Carlson of Northfield, Minn.

He came with his wife, Katrina Karlsen, who was first in line at 4 a.m. Sunday morning to get event tickets.

Dawn Schreyer was in the last group to get tickets. She was focused on the rural initiatives the president is expected to announce.

"We're interested to see him and hear what his plans are," the Cannon Falls woman said.

Also in the crowd, in addition to Goodhue County officials and Minnesota lawmakers, was Igor Vovkavinskly, wearing a T-shirt proclaiming he is the "Obama's biggest fan." He's the tallest American -- at 7 feet 8 inches -- and possibly the world.

Obama referred to last week's Republican presidential debate, in which all candidates agreed they would not agree to a debt reduction deal if it included any new taxes.

The economy-oriented bus tour will combine listening sessions, such as in Cannon Falls where the president mostly takes questions and a Tuesday eastern Iowa forum that could include some announcements significant to rural America, White House officials said.

Before Obama arrived, Republicans criticized what they called a campaign appearance.

Amid chants of "one-term president" and "USA," Republicans rallied downtown three hours before Obama spoke.

Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton said that talking about jobs and the economy is not enough.

"The president wants to talk about jobs, but that's all it is - talk," Sutton told the crowd.

"In Minnesota we're hurting and we're hurting bad," he said. He encouraged Obama to "release the shackles of taxes and regulations on businesses" to help create jobs."

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also railed against stagnant job growth, along with the country's recently downgraded credit rating and the rollercoaster economy.

"We are in a battle of freedom," Priebus said. "A country that has to surrender its sovereignty to its bond holders can't guarantee prosperity or freedom to anybody."

When he opened up the floor for questions, Obama first looked to a younger generation and called on Cecelia Findorff, who didn't expect she'd actually get a chance to talk to him.

"I was in such shock," the Waconia, Minn., resident said after not only talking to him, but shaking his hand as well.

As the daughter of the president of non-profit organization Minnesota Renewable Energy Marketplace, Findorff said she's been campaigning since she was in a stroller. The 19-year-old used her chance to ask a question as an opportunity to see how the president will use renewable energy to create jobs in the future.

"Everything he said about electric cars and advanced batteries made me happy and hopeful," Findorff said. "He gives me so much hope for a better future."

Obama told Findorff that when he took office he began to put billions of dollars into energy research "so we can move in a direction of fuels that are home grown."

The president said he is working on getting the Defense Department to use biofuels in its vehicles and airplanes.

Obama answered questions about health care reform, a key issue for Michelle Nord of Cannon Falls.

"We are an unemployed family that needs health care," Nord said. "It's a very scary thing."

And while much of the president's reform hasn't taken effect yet, pieces are already helping.

"We're college students, and wouldn't be able to afford (health care) otherwise," said Tyler Ringeisen of Cannon Falls.

The range of topics and confidence with which Obama talked about them was comforting, some said.

"He really reassured me that we're moving in the right direction," said Nikki Zimmer of Forest Lake.

For area residents, the experience itself also was exciting.

"It's a park I've played in so many times," John Peterson of Cannon Falls said of the meeting's location.

"We'll be telling this to our grandkids," said Rae Rusnak of Kenyon.

Charlotte Olson, a special education teacher at Rosemount, cheered as Obama spoke about doing away with No Child Left Behind and other education reforms.

"I teach kids with emotional disorders," she said. "They judge us the same as schools with kids with an IQ of 140. They base everything on the test," she said of the current education standards.

Olson was happy with Obama's promise to get teachers the tools they need.

"That's what I really appreciate," she said.

For Ben Rutter, a 19-year-old college student from Cannon Falls, getting to shake the president's hand a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience.

"It's pretty awesome to see him in your hometown," he said. "Especially your small hometown."

Rutter was also pleased with the president's emphasis on future generations.

"He's definitely looking at the next generation," he said. "He's putting more of a focus on us. Making sure we get social security."

Those in the riverside crowd talked politics, and the sunny and warm weather while watching the Cannon River flow nearby.

Obama complained that Republicans would not even consider raising taxes on the richest Americans, even though many in that category tell him they can afford to pay more.

It would not take much to fix the country's deficit, problem, Obama said. But without some new revenue, it would be tough.

His solution to Washington woes? "Some spirit of America first. A willingness of we are going to choose ... country over party.

The Red Wing Republican Eagle staff contributed to this story. Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.