ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Determined to energize dispirited Democrats, President Barack Obama told New Mexico voters on Tuesday that Republicans would reverse the progress he's made on education reform and student aid.
Addressing a small group in an Albuquerque family's front yard, Obama shifted from his recent focus on the economy, which has run headlong into the grim reality of continued high unemployment. Instead, five weeks ahead of midterm elections that could turn into a Democratic bloodletting, the president told voters to think about education when they head to the polls.
"Who's going to prioritize our young people to make sure they've got the skills they need to succeed?" the president said.
"Nothing's going to be more important in terms of our long-term success." Obama argued that Republicans would cut education spending to pay for tax cuts for the rich.
Later in the day, Obama was heading to a big rally at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he hopes to replicate the raucous, youthful, big-stage events for which he became famous in the 2008 presidential campaign. Democrats will host hundreds of watch parties nationwide, and Obama will hold other campus rallies before Nov. 2 to warn young voters that the "hope and change" they embraced two years ago is at risk if Republicans sweep the midterm elections.
The president is aiming to close the enthusiasm gap that pollsters say separates discouraged liberal voters from energized conservatives who might lift Republicans to huge gains in congressional and gubernatorial races.
But Obama got a quick reminder from his audience of about 40 in Albuquerque that education might not be at the top of the agenda for recession-weary voters.
"If we don't have homes to go to, what good is education?" one man asked.
A high school principal read a letter that he said was from a class in his school.
"What assurance will we have that we will be rewarded for good work?" the students asked. "There seems to be less money that banks lend our families, and most of all no jobs."
The president acknowledged the anxiety of the younger generation.
"They're growing up in the shadow of a financial crisis that we hadn't seen in our lifetime," he said, arguing his administration has sought to save jobs for teachers and others by closing tax loopholes, and is working to making it easier for kids to attend college.
Republican leaders, Obama said, "fought us tooth and nail ... That's the choice that we've got in this election."
The event at the stucco home of Andy and Etta Cavalier in a small farming community south of Albuquerque comes as Obama tests out a relatively new format of backyard visits that give him time to explain his policies in cozy, unhurried settings. He's coupling those with college campus rallies in four states Tuesday and Wednesday, trying to tackle Democrats' two biggest needs: to pump enthusiasm into young supporters who may stay at home this fall, and to persuade undecided voters that Republican alternatives are unacceptable.
In a magazine interview, Obama admonished Democratic voters, saying it would be "inexcusable" and "irresponsible" for unenthusiastic Democrats to sit out the elections because the consequences could be a squandered agenda for years.
"People need to shake off this lethargy. People need to buck up," Obama told Rolling Stone magazine in an interview being published Friday. Making change happen is hard, he said, and "if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren't serious in the first place."
Obama wants Democratic loyalists to be less apologetic and more forceful in asserting that he and the Democratic-controlled Congress are trying to move the country forward and Republicans would return to the policies of former President George W. Bush.