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

President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Grand Old Creamery in St. Paul as part of his two-day visit to the Twin Cities on Thursday. Ben Garvin | St. Paul Pioneer Press

Bill Salisbury

St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS —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.

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

At the town hall meeting, he fielded questions from citizens selected by local government officials, businesses and organizations. After listening to their concerns about the cost of college, gun violence, climate change and other issues for more than an hour, he left them with an upbeat 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 in shirtsleeves with a crowd 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 the 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 upbeat assessment came a day after a report that 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. He said federal agencies will provide flood relief as soon as they are certain of the extent of the damage.

He pledged Washington would be a “strong partner.”

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

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

That was evident when he made an unannounced stop shortly after his 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 from St. Anthony 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.”

Obama later took a stroll along Grand Avenue in St. Paul, stopping to talk with patio customers at the Wild Onion, shopping at the Golden Fig local specialty food store and getting a scoop of Black Hills Gold ice cream at the always busy Grand Ole Creamery.

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

Obama later attended a fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee at a Minneapolis home, where tickets to get in were $10,000 and up.

This morning, Obama will make a speech on the economy at the Lake Harriet Band Shell in Minneapolis before returning to Washington.

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