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Obama brings in money visiting Texas

President Barack Obama spent about six hours in Texas today and collected more than $1.6 million for Democratic campaign war chests.

After landing at Dallas Love Field just before 4 p.m., the president was the guest of honor at a fund-raiser at the Highland Park home of Russell and Dorothy Budd. Russell Budd is a prominent trial lawyer who made a fortune representing, among other clients, workers exposed to asbestos.

Obama left Love Field in Air Force One just before 6 p.m.

Earlier, he attended a fund-raiser at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin.

In both cities, he told supporters that the only idea Republicans have to fix the economy is to extend the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush.

“They know they messed up,” he said in Austin. “And they know that we [Democrats] pulled the country out of the problems we were in. But they figure, ‘He’s been in office long enough. … Maybe they’ll forget that actually, this was the result of our [Republican] economic policies.’ “

He added: “We have spent the last 20 months governing. They have spent the last 20 months politicking. We can politick for three months. They’ve forgotten I can politick pretty good.”

A spokesman for Bush said the former president had no response to Obama’s statements.

In addition to Bush — whom he never publicly mentioned by name — Obama slapped at ranother well-known Texas Republican, Rep. Joe Barton , R-Arlington, who could chair the House energy committee if Republicans regain control of the House.

Obama said of Bartion, “He apologized to BP. Said I’m sorry. I’m sorry the president shook you down. I think he may have added in there `Chicago’ shakedown. … Apologized to BP, because we decided we needed to hold a company accountable for the environmental devastation and the economic devastation.

“I don’t think he was even thinking about the next election. I don’t know what he was thinking about.”

Obama was referring to a roundly criticized statement that Barton made (and later retracted) in June. The Texas Republican said Obama’s push for BP to establish a $20 billion escrow account for damages related to the Gulf Coast oil spill amounted to a “shakedown” and a “slush fund.” He apologized to the British oil giant for the president’s action.

When he arrived in Dallas it was just under 100 degrees. Obama walked down the stairs of Air Force One, waved, took off his suit coat, and unexpectedly strode to a hangar where several dozen people were waiting with cameras.

“It’s kind of hot out here. I thought I’d say hello,” he said.

With the president was Ron Kirk, the U.S. trade ambassador and former Dallas mayor.

More than 100 people attended the fund-raiser at the Budd home. They made donations of $10,000 to $100,000 to a Democratic election committeee.

Obama spoke for roughly 30 minutes.

“There are a lot of people here in Dallas, a lot of people all across America, who are still struggling,” he said, adding that Republcians are counting on voter “amnesia” about how badly they ran the country when they were in power.

Among the local references he slipped in: He thanked Dallas for training Kirk so well.

He repearted a line he’s used elsewhere, that Republicans have been “sipping Slurpees” while Democrats pulled the nation from a muddy ditch. The line has special meaning in Dallas, hometown of 7-Eleven.

In Austin, Obama addressed more than 200 supporters at the Four Seasons.

Afterward, he spoke at the University of Texas. His subject: The importance of higher education to a strong national economy.

At UT, he reminisced about his visit to Austin in February 2007, two weeks after announcing his candidacy, when 20,000 or so supporters came to see him at Auditorium Shores. He recalled a stadium tour with Longhorns football coach Mack Brown.

And he pitched a vision of economic growth that hinges largely on the competitive edge that higher education provides.

“We are not a country that plays for second place. We are the United States of America, and we play for first,” he said.

Yet, in the last generation, the United States has fallen from first to 12th in college graduation rates.

“That’s unacceptable, but not irreversible,” Obama said. “…We need to retake the lead. If we’re serious about making sure America’s workers, and America itself, succeed in the 21st Century, the single most important step we can take is to offer all our kids – here in Austin, here in Texas, and across this country – the best education the world has to offer.”

To loud cheers, he said: “Education is an economic issue. Education is the economic issue of our time.”

To make federal funding for student loans go further, Democrats pushed through legislation that cut out banks and other financial institutions that acted as middlemen, Obama told the UT crowd, saving $60 billion despite the best efforts of “lobbyists and a minority party” – that is, the Republicans – united in their support of an outrageous status quo.”

The UT football team had reserved seating in the balcony of Gregory Gym, where Obama spoke. The players all wore burnt orange shirts. A round of “Texas fight” broke out a few minutes before Obama appeared, half the room yelling, “Texas,” and the other half responding, “Fight.”

Tricia Jackson, a junior majoring in communications, was wearing a shirt with obama’s picture on it.

“He is the most well-known figure right now, and I wouldn’t have passed up this opportunity,” she said. “I feel lucky that I got a ticket.”

The gym seats about 4,000. Student tickets were distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. University vice presidents and deans were given tickets and had some they could distribute.

Reeja Jayan, a grad student at UT, she wished Obama had said more about students pursuing advanced degrees.

“What he said about undergraduate degrees was interesting, but the rate of Americans getting advanced degrees has also fallen,” she said.

Earlier, upon landing in Austin, Obama chatted briefly with Republican Gov. Rick Perry, a vocal critic of the president and his policies.

The president and governor shook hands warmly and stood face to face for 20 or 30 seconds. Obama clasped his right arm.

Then, as the president moved down the line to other greeters – Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, state Sen. Kirk Watson and state Rep. Mark Strama – Perry pulled a letter from his pocket and handed it to White House counselor Valerie Jarrett , who came down the stairs behind the president with Ron Kirk, the U.S. Trade Representative and former Dallas mayor.

The letter from Perry asked the president to recognize the urgent circumstances on the border with Mexico and to send 1,000 additional troops – on top of the 286 promised by the administration – to combat gangs, drugs, and human trafficking.

“The deployment of just 286 National Guard personnel along the 1,200 mile Texas-Mexico border is clearly insufficient,” the letter said.

Perry applauded as Obama stepped from Air Force One.

“I probably applauded every time a president has rolled in,” he said later. “It’s the gracious thing to do. He’s the president of the United States. This is Texas.”

The governor added that if he had been the only one not applauding, the media would have questioned him about that, too.

Obama was introduced at the Four Seasons by Linda Chavez-Thompson, a national vice chair of the Democratic Party and the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.

She took a few swipes at Perry and her election opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

“You’ll hear them say we have a balanced budget in Texas, or we have money in the bank. What the Republican leadership in Texas doesn’t tell you is they balanced that budget with $15 billion in federal stimulus money,” she said.

She added that since Perry and Dewhurst, in keeping with Texas’ “macho side,” refused to thank Obama, she would do it for them: “Thank you, Mr. President”

Obama gave shout-outs to Kirk, lauding the job he’s been doing as trade ambassador. And, he said, “more importantly Ambassador Ron Kirk’s mom is here.”

He also took note of Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, calling him a “wonderful congressman.”

He spoke fondly of returning to Austin.

“I like the people. I like the food. I like the music. I like that there are a bunch of Democrats here. It’s wonderful,” he said.

He blasted Republicans for being, as he portrayed it, devoid of ideas and solutions other than those discredited the last time Republicans were in power.

Before Obama’s arrival in Texas, aides downplayed his plans to chat briefly with Perry about border security. They also dismissed a decision by Perry’s November election opponent, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White, to remain far from Obama during the president’s one-day visit.

“He definitely does not take that as an insult,” White House spokesman Bill Burton insisted aboard Air Force One en route to Austin.

White, the former mayor of Houston, said he was honoring longstanding campaign commitments today to be in Midland, Abilene, and Johnson County while Obama will visit Austin and Dallas.

White said that if the president wanted to talk, he was welcome to pick up a phone.

That’s not going to happen, said Burton. “There are no plans to call him, no.”

The Budd home in Highland Park had a Bill White for Governor sign in the yard.

Perry began clapping when Obama emerged from the doorway of Air Force One.

“I’ve been to probably a hundred of these,” Burton said from 30 feet away. “That’s the first time I’ve seen a governor applaud.”

Perry and Kirk shook hands and then engaged in a bear hug. They, too, chatted beyond the earshot of reporters.

Obama then circled back for one last word and handshake with Perry before striding to his waiting limo. Kirk got in the other side.

Less than two minutes elapsed between Obama’s deplaning and a Secret Service agent’s shutting his limo door.

Perry and other Republicans have argued that more troops and Border Patrol agents are needed as Mexico’s drug war rages.

Burton defended the administration’s response to border concerns.

“For starters, the president has put more assets on the border to secure the border than has ever previously been there. That includes National Guard troops, technology. Things he’s done on enforcement. It’s something he’s working very hard on,” Burton said.

At UT, students were lined up outside Gregory Gym hours before Obama’s speech.

The first in line – at 4:30 a.m. – were Jose Gomez, a senior majoring in petroleum engineering, and Erica Ortiz, a senior in architectural engineering.

Ortiz said it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“This is something that we will never get to experience again. Waiting a few hours is nothing,” she said.

Gomez added: “This is so exciting. He is a huge role model for minority communities.”

Naveen Mehta, a junior in biomedical engineering, said: “Its fantastic that he is coming here. Obama needs to keep reaching out to the young voters, and that’s why he is coming back to UT.” He was sitting with his brother, Nishant Mehta, incoming freshman.

Republicans used the occasion of Obama’s visit to taunt both White and Obama – White for hiding, Obama for being so unpopular that fellow Democrats are scared to be seen with him.

Burton said it’s only natural that some Democrats would keep their distance. He noted that the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia did not meet with Obama during a similar visit a week earlier.

“There’s never been a president in the history of this great country who has been wanted by every single candidate across the country to come and campaign for him,” Burton said. “…I don’t think that it says anything broadly about the president’s coattails. I think it says that Bill White had something else going on today that he would rather do than campaign with the president.”

Republicans say Obama could learn a thing or two during his Texas visit about the benefits of lower taxes and a friendly business climate. But Burton noted that Texas has its flaws – notably, the nation’s highest rate of people who lack health insurance.

“Texas is obviously a great state, one of the greatest states in the country. But like every other state they’ve gone through this economic crisis,” he said. “….Health insurance reform that the president signed into law this year will have a big impact on helping Texans get insured… You can have different competing economic philosophies but the president is doing everything he can to help the Texas economy, just like the United States economy, get back on track.”

Obama will focus on education policy at his UT speech this afternoon, but comes to the state without any Texas-specific announcements. He has yet to fill the state’s four U.S. attorney posts, for instance.

“We’re working with the delegation on the appropriate nominees,” Burton said.

Before Democratic crowds, Obama hasn’t been shy about bashing the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose Dallas home is just a few miles from the fundraising dinner Obama will attend later today. The UT speech is unlikely to include a swipe but Burton said Obama wouldn’t change his message just because he’s on Bush turf.

Still, there won’t be any detour for a courtesy call or a cup of coffee – say, to review progress on the Haiti recovery effort that Obama asked Bush to lead with Bill Clinton seven months ago.

“The president will obviously see him at some point in the future. I don’t know that there was a request for a meeting,” Burton said.

By TODD J. GILLMAN Dallas News

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