"We don't need a politics that's playing to the most fringe elements of politics," the president said during a town hall meeting at Minnehaha Park, where he took questions from community members on such topics as his strategies to address gun violence and student loan debt. "We just need folks who are having commonsense conversations about what's happening in your lives and how we can help."
Obama was accompanied by Rebekah Erler, 36, of St. Anthony, Minnesota. The accountant and mother of two preschool-age boys wrote to the president this spring about her family's struggles after her husband's construction business went under during the downturn in the housing market. Her note made its way into the pile of 10 letters from Americans that Obama reads each night.
The attempt to show presidential empathy with the plight of everyday Americans puts a fine point on two harsh realities for Obama: His influence is waning two years into his last term, and despite a booming Wall Street, the economic recovery has yet to filter down to many of the middle-class families who were hit hardest by the recession.
Erler wrote about how her family moved from Seattle to Minneapolis, where her husband has held a number of difficult jobs before finally landing back in the remodeling industry. She said she relied on student loans to attend a community college and is now working as an accountant. They were able to buy their first home last fall.
But despite their achievements and hard work, Erler wrote, they are still struggling with costs of raising a family, including student loan payments, groceries and child care. Obama said it's a sentiment he often hears.
"There are a lot of people who work very hard, do the right thing, are responsible but still find at the end of the month that they are not getting ahead," he said. "And that's the central challenge that drives me every day."
Obama joined Erler for lunch at Matt's Bar, a Minneapolis landmark lit mostly by neon beer signs, where he ordered its signature $6.50 "Jucy Lucy" burger with melted cheese in the middle of the patty. The two later planned to make a number of unannounced stops in the Minneapolis area before the president was to headline a fundraiser for House Democrats in the evening. He was staying in town overnight and planning an economic speech Friday on his push to increase the minimum wage.
Obama's fundraiser Thursday evening is the sixth the president has held so far this year for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, with more in the works. All told, Obama has held dozens of fundraisers for Democrats as the party seeks to protect its fragile Senate majority and gain seats in the House amid tough political terrain.
In his speech Friday, Obama plans to highlight Minnesota's decision to hike its minimum wage from $6.15 per hour to $9.50 by 2016. Obama's push to get Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour hasn't gained much traction, but the president has sought to use his bully pulpit to encourage states to raise wages on their own.