Trying to bury a year of polarization, President Barack Obama escalated his appeal for politicians and voters to settle differences without tearing each other apart. His plea: "Let's start thinking of each other as Americans first."
Obama made sure to weave that message throughout his visit to Florida on Thursday, hammering again on his State of the Union message that voters and politicians should aim for more than just constant confrontation.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were in Florida to announce $8 billion in federal grants for high-speed rail projects nationwide _ part of his push to combine spending on infrastructure with job creation.
Obama's emphasis on civility was a nod to political reality. The trip came the day after the State of the Union address and the day before he is to meet with House Republican leaders with whom he continues to battle. He needs Republicans more than ever to get his agenda passed, and he is getting saddled with more public blame for the partisanship he promised to change.
"Nothing that human beings do will be perfect," Obama said as he capped a town hall at the University of Tampa, where he was received with boisterous support.
"But we shouldn't sort of assume that the other side is either heartless or doesn't care about sick people or is some socialist/communist who's trying to take over the health care system," the president said. "We start getting into these caricatures. They're so damaging."
Just how far to go in working with Republicans has been an evolving calculation for the White House. Obama ended up muscling through a giant economic stimulus plan with little help from the opposition party. He was poised to do the same on major health care legislation until the election of a Republican in Massachusetts lost Democrats the "super-majority" they need _ 60 votes _ to overcome delays in the 100-member Senate.
Obama takes responsibility, but still casts Republicans as a party of "no" and calls that their political strategy.
"I want the Republicans off the sidelines. I want them to work with us to solve problems," Obama said. And then he added: "I don't want an attitude `If Obama loses, then we win.' I mean, that can't be a platform. ... All of us should be rooting for each other."
Party divisions arise less over goals _ the main one for both parties is jobs _ then how to achieve them. Those policy discussions are even more difficult with the approach of November's congressional elections.
On Friday, Obama will address House Republicans in Baltimore, where lawmakers are holding their annual retreat. He'll also tour a small business in the same city and announce a new job-creation proposal.
Wednesday night, the president devoted most of his State of the Union speech to job-creation proposals, such as eliminating capital gains taxes on small business investment and extending tax breaks for businesses to invest in new plants and equipment. But those proposals also face uncertainty in Congress, where Senate Democrats say they may need a selective, piecemeal approach to win enough votes.
Republicans have so far not been impressed.
"We had hoped to hear a new commitment to keep his promises to govern from the center, change the tone in Washington, and work with both parties in a bipartisan way to help small businesses create jobs and get our economy moving again," said House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio. "Unfortunately, the president and the Democrats in charge of Congress still aren't listening to the American people."
Associated Press writer Tamara Lush contributed to this report from Tampa.