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EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — President Barack Obama acknowledged his pivotal role in the midterm political campaign Thursday, arguing that the November congressional elections are a referendum on his economic policies and blaming Republicans for blocking his efforts to boost wages and create more jobs.
In a speech at Northwestern University that marked a shift in attention from foreign entanglements to domestic concerns, Obama laid claim to an economic recovery that he said has made steady progress, yet he conceded that many families have not benefited from lower unemployment, beefed-up corporate profits and a pumped-up stock market.
Obama offered a lengthy defense of his policies, from bailing out the auto industry to his health care law, and he renewed his call for a higher minimum wage and equal pay legislation. He said that while he's not seeking election in November, "these policies are on the ballot, every single one of them."
Promoting pocketbook issues in the homestretch of the midterm election campaign, Obama fluctuated between bullish assurances that the recovery was real and recognition that joblessness and low wages still afflict millions of Americans.
"These truths aren't incompatible," he. "Our broader economy in the aggregate has come a long way, but the gains of recovery aren't yet broadly shared."
He underscored the political climate just four weeks before congressional elections, accusing Republicans of rejecting efforts to increase the minimum wage, refinance student loans or extend unemployment benefits and of pressing for more tax cuts for the wealthy.
"When nearly all the gains of the recovery have gone to the top 1 percent, when income inequality is at as high a rate as we've seen in decades," he said, "I find that hard to swallow."
The speech came after Obama spent weeks consumed with international crises, though the White House had always planned to refocus on the economy to assure voters that he hasn't forgotten about their money struggles.
An Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday found that the economy is the top issue for the Americans most likely to cast ballots in the midterm elections. Nine out of 10 consider it extremely or very important in deciding their votes for Congress. They have just one month to make up their minds, and Obama plans to speak out more during that time on pocketbook concerns, including a jobs speech Friday in Indiana.
Besides criticizing Republicans for blocking his economic proposals, he also needled his favorite news media target, saying that fewer Republicans were running against his health care plan because "while good, affordable health care might seem to be a fanged threat to freedom on Fox News, it turns out its 's working pretty well in the real world."
As the economy shows signs of improving, however, Obama's challenge has been to walk a delicate line — taking some credit for an economic recovery without seeming to disregard continuing hard times.
"It's very tricky for a president when economies are emerging from recessions," said Matt Bennett, a strategist who has consulted for various Democratic candidates. "It's just very difficult to take credit that you are due — or as much as presidents are due blame or credit for the economy— without sounding a false note for people who still feel very vulnerable."
Many important indicators are in a positive place — unemployment has been going down, consumer spending is up and housing prices are rising. The stock market hit records in the past month, though it has softened in recent days.
The speech comes one day ahead of the government releasing its job report for September. The unemployment rate in august was 6.1 percent, far below its high of 10 percent in 2009. But while the number of people who have been unemployed for less than 26 weeks has declined, many of those still in the jobless ranks have been without jobs for a long time.
What's more, since 2007, the proportion of adults either working or seeking work has sunk from 66 percent to 62.8 percent, the lowest in 35 years. Much of that is due to voluntary retirements, but much is also due to workers who have grown disillusioned with the job market.
Also, while corporate bottom lines are improving, companies aren't filling jobs as fast they were before the recession. An index compiled by Steven Davis, a University of Chicago economist, found companies took an average of nearly 25 days to fill a job in July 2014, up from fewer than 22 in 2006.
While acknowledging that the recovery has failed to reach all middle-class Americans, Obama blamed part of that failure on Republicans. He said he had presented his plans for jobs and higher wages.
"A true opposition party should have the courage to lay out theirs," Obama said, in a remark that ignored the fact that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has passed a number of GOP inspired economic proposals that have stalled in the Democratic-run Senate.
In the AP-GfK poll, 4 in 10 approved of President Barack Obama's handling of the economy, generally unchanged since late last year. Likely voters give Republicans a narrow edge as the party more trusted to handle the economy, 36 percent to 31 percent who favor the Democrats' approach.
Kuhnhenn reported from Washington, D.C. AP Economics Writer Christopher S. Rugaber and AP Polling Director Jennfer Agiesta contributed to this report.