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President Barack Obama speaks at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis on Thursday. ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS/Ben Garvin

Obama tries to put upbeat face on his record during Minnesota visit

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Obama tries to put upbeat face on his record during Minnesota visit
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With Washington bogged down in partisan gridlock, President Barack Obama came to the Twin Cities on Thursday afternoon to talk to ordinary citizens and put an upbeat face on a record that has taken a beating.

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He held a town hall meeting with about 350 Minnesotans in Minnehaha Park, grabbed a burger at a Minneapolis bar with a struggling young mother and took a side trip to St. Paul’s Grand Avenue to chat with small-business owners.

Obama’s aides said the trip marked the start of a “Day in the Life” tour in which he gets out of the “Washington bubble” and mingles with ordinary Americans.

At the town hall meeting in the Minneapolis park, he fielded friendly questions is shirtsleeves from citizens selected by local politicians, businesses and organizations. After listening to their concerns about the cost of college, gun violence, climate change and other issues for an hour, he left them with an optimistic message.

Despite all the dysfunction in Washington, “we’re making progress,” he asserted.

The president acknowledged he isn’t getting much through Congress “because right now we’ve got a party on the other side whose only rationale or motivation seems to be opposing me.”

Speaking to an audience sitting on park benches in bright sunlight, Obama ticked off a list of his administration’s accomplishments.

Despite all the opposition, he said, some people who previously lacked health insurance now have it, more students can afford college and more people have jobs.

“Despite all that, the Green Line got built here in Minnesota,” he said of Metro Transit’s new light-rail service between St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“Despite all that, we can make life a little better for American families who are doing their best, working hard and meeting their responsibilities.”

The president’s positive spin came a day after a new report showed the nation’s economic contraction during the first quarter of this year was worse than expected. Republicans pounced on that news.

“While President Obama is out surveying the economy his policies have failed to rejuvenate, hopefully he will take the opportunity to consider a different approach,” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short said in a statement. “It’s clear President Obama’s policies still aren’t working and the country needs a new direction.”

The U.S. economy shrank 2.9 percent in the January-to-March quarter, the biggest contraction since 2009, according to federal figures released Wednesday. Much of the downward revision reflected an unexpectedly sharp drop in health care spending and a bigger trade deficit. Analysts, though, see it as a short-lived result, and point to a harsh winter that shut down factories and disrupted shipping and kept Americans from shopping malls and auto dealerships.

In response to questions at the town hall meeting, Obama said the most pressing issue for higher education is holding the costs of student loans. He lamented Congress’ refusal to pass “common-sense” gun restrictions but said that won’t happen until proponents are as passionate about the issue as the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers. He also called for generating more solar and wind power to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that he said are causing global warming.

Before fielding questions, he told the crowd he had met with Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, who updated him on flooding across the state, the result of persistent rainfall this month. He promised that federal agencies would be a “strong partner” and provide flood relief as soon as they assess the extent of the damage.

At Minnehaha Park, he said he felt like a “caged bear” that had broken free. “I feel super loose today,” he said.

That was evident earlier when he made an unannounced stop shortly after his Twin Cities arrival at Matt’s Bar, “Home of the Jucy Lucy,” in South Minneapolis. There he mingled with the lunch-hour crowd before sitting down in a booth with Rebekah Erler, a 36-year-old working mother of two preschoolers who had written a letter to him explaining her family’s financial struggles. Obama assured her he heard her plea.

Although the economy is doing better, “there are still a lot of folks struggling out there,” he said at the town hall meeting. “That is the central challenge that drives me every day.”

Erler called the experience “an incredible opportunity to share what’s important to me and my friends and my family and what we go through every day.”

After the town hall event, Obama and his entourage paid a surprise visit to St. Paul’s trendy Grand Avenue.  His first stop was the upscale Golden Fig food shop.

“You wrote me and invited me, and I decided to come,” he told owner Laurie Crowell, who wrote a letter extolling  the importance and mom-and-pop businesses.

After spending $82.55 on Crowell’s specialty items, he took a leisurely stroll down Grand Avenue, chatting with all the patrons at the sidewalk tables outside the Wild Onion bar and grill.

At the Grand Ole Creamery, he told three women at an outdoor table it was a treat to get out and meet people like them. “It’s a lovely afternoon, and they don’t always let me go,” he said.

Then he went into the shop and ordered a scoop of Black Hills Gold ice cream.

“It was very awesome,” said 17-year-old Joel Seaburry, on the job just a month at the Grand Old Creamery.

Obama capped his day with a brief speech at a fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee at a Minneapolis home, where tickets for dinner ranged from $10,000 to $32,000.

This morning, the president is scheduled to give a speech on the economy at Minneapolis’ Lake Harriet Band Shell before returning to Washington. 

Frederick Melo and Elizabeth Hernandez contributed to this report.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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