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Jul 2, 5:36 PM EDT

Obama draws sharp contrasts with 'mean' Republicans


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LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) -- Wading into presidential politics, President Barack Obama on Thursday promoted his brand of middle-class economics by drawing sharp contrasts with "mean" Republicans in a state whose GOP governor was preparing to enter the vast 2016 presidential field.

"They're good people," Obama said of Republicans. "It's just their ideas are bad."

Obama leveled some of his sharpest criticism of Republicans, who disagree with him on most matters, on the issue of health care exactly one week after the Supreme Court upheld a key component of the law and Obama declared it "here to stay."

Republicans in Congress have cast dozens of votes to repeal the law, and they have vowed to keep trying.

"Every single one of them is still obsessed with repealing the Affordable Care Act, despite the fact that by every measure it's working," Obama said. "It just seems a little mean to say that you don't want to provide coverage" to millions of people who've gained it under the law "and you got nothing to replace it with."

"That's a bad idea," the president said.

Republicans countered that Obama was resorting to attacks because he's the one short on good ideas.

"It's no surprise all President Obama has left are partisan attacks after spending the last six and a half years presiding over the weakest economic recovery in modern history and a declining middle class," Republican Party spokesman Michael Short said.

Obama traveled to Wisconsin to tout a Labor Department proposal that would make more salaried workers eligible for overtime pay. The move is strongly supported by organized labor, a traditional Democratic ally that parted with Obama over his push for a free-trade pact with Asia-Pacific countries.

Despite forceful opposition by labor that led most Democrats to abandon Obama on trade, he won "fast track" authority for the pending trade deal with support from Republicans, who are more supportive of trade. Congress would be able to approve or reject the trade agreement, but not change or delay it.

The legislative win kicked off a strong stretch for the lame-duck president, including Supreme Court rulings on health care and affirming gay marriage nationwide.

Obama told the 2,000-plus-person crowd at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse that it's been "a remarkable few weeks in America."

The president was greeted at the airport by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who teased his expected entry into the presidential race on social media. Walker made a national name for himself by fighting labor unions. By landing in Wisconsin, Obama signaled his solidarity with organized labor.

He also couldn't resist poking fun at a GOP presidential field that will reach 15 with Walker's formal entry.

"We've got some healthy competition in the Democratic Party but I've lost count of how many Republicans are running," he said, adding that the GOP has enough to put on an actual "Hunger Games."

"That's an interesting bunch," Obama said.

Obama said there's more to be done to increase workers' wages despite the U.S. unemployment rate hitting a seven-year low of 5.3 percent in June. He said the overtime rule would help by making up to 5 million more people eligible for pay at the rate of time-and-a-half.

Obama said his administration's focus on reviving U.S. manufacturing, spending on education and cutting taxes is boosting America's middle class. The Republican philosophy of giving breaks to the wealthy in hopes that benefits will "trickle down" to others is an outdated idea that doesn't work, he said, adding that the proof was "right here in Wisconsin."

Without naming Walker, Obama criticized his economic policies, listing the repeal of a statewide fair pay law, Walker's clashes with labor unions and education spending cuts. He compared Wisconsin to neighboring Minnesota, where the Democratic governor has increased taxes on higher incomes and moved to raise the minimum wage and expand Medicaid coverage.

"According to the Republican theory, all that kind of stuff would have been bad for the economy. But Minnesota's unemployment rate is lower than Wisconsin's. Minnesota's median income is around $9,000 higher. ... Minnesota's winning this border battle."

Walker tweeted after Obama had departed: "Looks like Obama & (at)TheDemocrats are after me again but recent history shows they're in for a fight."

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This story has been corrected to show that the name of the institution is the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, not the University of Madison at La Crosse.

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