Schwarzenegger Helps Obama Answer GOP Critics

President Barack Obama is playing a bit of divide-and-conquer this week, pitting his Republican critics in Washington against GOP governors and mayors eager for the federal money that his hard-fought stimulus plan will bring.

Barack Obama

Next on the list of Republican notables to embrace the president is California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was to join Obama at a town hall meeting Thursday in Los Angeles.

Congress recently enacted Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill without a single House Republican's vote, and with only three GOP senators' votes.

Republican governors have had mixed reactions to the massive measure. Some hardline conservatives, such as Mark Sanford of South Carolina, have rejected portions of the economic bounty.

Other GOP governors, including Charlie Crist of Florida, have welcomed Obama and the stimulus money. Schwarzenegger is casting his lot with that group.

The California governor also planned to meet with Obama in Washington on Friday, along with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat.

As Obama began his two-day Southern California visit Wednesday in Costa Mesa, the White House released a list of projects to be funded with stimulus money.

They include adding an eastbound lane to the Riverside Freeway/SR91 in Orange County. Obama's mention of the project drew cheers from a crowd of 1,300 that greeted him in Costa Mesa.

When a recently laid-off school teacher told Obama of her plight, he said the stimulus will help thousands of teachers nationwide keep their jobs.

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Throughout the trip, Obama is playing the role of the embattled populist crusader, helping average Americans fight entrenched interests on Capitol Hill and Wall Street.

He said Southern California's weather and conversations are much nicer than in Washington.

The conversation Wednesday was more one-sided, to be sure, as the Costa Mesa crowd cheered, 2,500 miles from the Capitol's shadow.

He defended his ambitious plan to overhaul health care, energy, education, taxes and spending policies in the coming months, against unidentified forces aligned against him.

"I know some folks in Washington and on Wall Street are saying we should focus on only one problem at a time: 'our problem,"' Obama said.

"But that's just not the way it works." "You don't get to choose between paying your mortgage bills or your medical bills," he told those in a hot auditorium.

The government also must tackle multiple challenges at the same time, he said. Obama spoke for 21 minutes, then took eight questions.

The first: Will he seek re-election in 2012? "If I could get done what I think needs to get done in four years, even if it meant that I was only president for four years, I would rather be a good president—to take on the tough issues for four years—than a mediocre president for eight years," Obama said.

There were other whiffs of self-sacrifice.

Referring to the uproar over bonuses paid to executives of the largely nationalized AIG insurance company, Obama said: "I know Washington's all in a tizzy, and everybody's pointing fingers at each other and saying, 'It's their fault, the Democrats' fault, the Republicans' fault.' Listen, I'll take responsibility.

I'm the president." In the same breath, he said, "We didn't draft these contracts." But he added, "It is appropriate when you're in charge to make sure that stuff doesn't happen like this." Obama tried to head off questions about AIG by saying he understood taxpayers' anger.

And he tried to broaden the issue, which has vexed his young administration.

"These bonuses, outrageous as they are, are a symptom of a much larger problem," he said. It's "a culture where people made enormous sums of money taking irresponsible risks that have now put the entire economy at risk." In fact, no one asked Obama about AIG .

The questions focused on jobs, schools, union rights and other issues that are easier for him to handle. One little curve ball came, however, on a topic Obama rarely mentions on his own: immigration.

Before a crowd that seemed divided on the emotional, politically dangerous issue, Obama said he still supports "comprehensive immigration reform." The nation must find a way, he said, to strengthen its borders while also giving about 12 million illegal immigrants a path to possible citizenship.

"People who have been here for a long time and put down roots," he said, should have "a mechanism over time to get out of the shadows" and achieve legal status, including citizenship.

They would have to learn English, pay a significant fine and "go to the back of the line" of those applying for legal entry, he said.

Former President George W. Bush backed a similar immigration program. But it died in Congress amid heavy criticisms, especially from those saying too many illegal immigrants have been allowed to enter the country.

Before returning to Washington late Thursday, Obama will tape an appearance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."