SEATTLE -- President Barack Obama said skeptical voters should challenge Republican candidates who are calling for smaller budgets, demanding that they explain how they'd shrink the government.
Appearing in a northeast Seattle neighborhood for a "backyard conversation" with about 35 local residents, Obama defended policies his administration and Congressional Democrats have pushed through in the last 21 months. But he acknowledged the effects of some things like health care reform are just starting to be felt, and might not seem like a good idea for years.
But Sen. Patty Murray, who joined Obama on the deck behind Erik and Cynnie Foss's remodeled home, doesn't have years. She's locked in a tough re-election battle with former state Sen. Dino Rossi, who is one of those Republicans criticizing Democrats for health care and the stimulus programs while calling for smaller government and less spending.
Rossi continually hammers at Murray for federal spending and deficits while noting he helped engineer a balanced budget in the Legislature in 2003.
Without mentioning Rossi by name, Obama said voters should ask anyone calling for less government "what exactly do you mean to cut. If they can't answer the question, they're not serious about it."
In fact, Rossi and Murray -- who also acknowledges the budget must be cut and the deficit brought down -- were both asked that question at a recent debate. Neither offered many specifics.
The stimulus package "did cost money and it added to the deficit," Obama acknowledged, but he defended it as necessary: "Had we not taken those steps, had we dropped into a depression, the deficit would have been even worse."
The theme of the conversation was helping women in the difficult economy, and Obama used it as a chance to highlight some emerging Seattle businesses owned or operated by women who are growing, with government help, despite the economy. Jody Hall, owner of Cupcake Royale, said she was able to open a fourth and fifth shop in the last 18 months, adding 30 workers, in part because of a Small Business Administration loan that she secured at more favorable terms than she'd get from the bank. Christina Lomasney of Modumetal, a high-metals manufacturer, said her company received a U.S. Energy Department contract through the Recovery Act.
At a previous backyard conversation in Ohio, Obama came under fire from a supporter who said she was struggling and getting tired of defending him and his administration. There was none of that in Seattle, where most people prefaced their question or remarks with thanking him for coming or praising the job he was doing. Instead he had supporters of recent health care reforms questioning why the changes are be blasted by Republicans with no checking by the news media on who's distorting the facts.
The health care changes are complicated, but will become more popular as they take effect, Obama predicted: "We're going to look back 20 years from now and say this wasabsolutely the right thing to do."
He blamed the drop in the popularity of health care reform to the need to push on to other problems as soon as it was passed. "I had to move on so fast...we didn't always think about making sure we were advertising properly what we were doing."
Asked if he had seen the movie "Waiting for Superman", a documentary about the struggle of students trying to win rare slots for charter schools, Obama said he had: "That's another good deal from being president...We get (movies) on DVD before they hit the theaters."
He said the administration is trying to spur innovation in schools through its Race to the Top competition that will give money to states that offer the best plans for improvement. Washington state's applied for Race to the Top money, but did not make the cut.
After an hour in the Foss's backyard, Obama and Murray headed to the University of Washington's Hec Edmundson Center for a get out the vote rally.
Rossi is in Seattle today, too. He has a press conference this afternoon to discuss wasteful earmarks.