LAWRENCE, Kan. — President Obama on Thursday unveiled plans to greatly increase federal assistance to working Americans struggling to afford child care, choosing a Democratic pocket in a solidly Republican state to sharpen the contrast between the two parties’ economic visions.
In an appearance at the University of Kansas — his second stop in a Republican state in two days of promoting his domestic initiatives — Mr. Obama called for an $80 billion expansion of a federal program that provides child care subsidies to low- and middle-income families with children ages 3 and under, nearly doubling the aid and offering it to more than one million additional children over the next decade.
He promoted his plan to nearly triple, to $3,000 per child, the maximum child care tax credit. And the president said he would push to put more federal money into early childhood programs, expanding the availability of free preschool and extending Head Start — focused on low-income families — to last an entire day, and for the full school year.
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These aren’t just nice-to-have’s, this is a must-have, Mr. Obama told several thousand people in a hulking gymnasium on the campus. It is time that we stop treating child care as a side issue or a, quote-unquote ‘women’s issue.’ This is a family issue, this is a national economic priority for all of us.
Mr. Obama is engaging in a well-worn tradition of presidents taking their State of the Union themes out of Washington and around the country after their prime-time speeches to Congress — but with a twist. His trips this week, to Idaho on Wednesday and here on Thursday, are in places controlled by Republican governors and members of Congress.
I’m a Kansas guy, the president said, noting that while his mother was a native, those roots did not help him to carry the state in either of his presidential campaigns. I might have won sections of Lawrence — that’s possible, he said with a smile, acknowledging the Democratic bent of the college town of about 90,000.
Lawrence is this little blue dot in a red sea here, said Burdett A. Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. Going to two of the very reddest states in the country in the wake of a State of the Union address that was very much a blue address, the president is laying down a lot of challenges to the Republican Congress.
Mr. Loomis served as an aide to Kathleen Sebelius, Mr. Obama’s former secretary of health and human services, when she was the state’s Democratic governor. He said the economy in Kansas under the current Republican governor, Sam Brownback — who has cut taxes for high earners and business, slashed spending on education, and declined to expand Medicaid — offered a stark difference between the vision the president is laying out for helping the middle class.
Kansas is also home to Koch Industries and ground zero for the conservative political empire of the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, backers of Americans for Prosperity, which spent $120 million in 2012 in attempts to defeat Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats.
In his State of the Union speech, Mr. Obama argued that providing high-quality child care for families in which both parents work was an economic imperative. On Thursday, he said that in 31 states, a year of high-quality child care currently costs more than a year of in-state tuition.
White House officials said while the average subsidy for low- and moderate-income families under the federal Child Care and Development Fund was $5,500 in 2013, Mr. Obama’s expansion of the program would aim to cover the entire cost of high-quality care, an average of $10,000. And the number of children covered would nearly double, to 2.6 million in 2025.
I don’t want any family to face the choice between not working or leaving their children in unsafe or poor-quality child care, Mr. Obama said.
The increased subsidies and tax credits would be financed by Mr. Obama’s plan to increase taxes on investments and inherited wealth, as well as a fee on large financial institutions. The preschool initiative would be paid for by increasing tobacco taxes.
The proposals are in keeping with the central themes of his Tuesday address, in which he claimed credit for an economic resurgence that he said should usher in a new era of middle-class economics.
It has met with criticism by Republicans who dismissed it as a typical tax-and-spend prescription that would stifle economic growth.
The president used his speech to call on Republicans to offer their own ideas about how to finance bipartisan priorities like larger tax credits for research and development and investments in roads and bridges, as well as to help working families afford college and child care.
The answer can’t just be ‘no’ to everything, Mr. Obama said. At some point, you’ve got to say ‘yes’ to something. I want to get to yes. Tell me what you want to do.
Before the speech, the president visited with about 50 preschool children at a nearby Head Start center that offers extended care — from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. — where he chatted with star-struck 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds who said they recognized him from TV.
Kneeling to greet each child, the president said the Dr. Seuss book they were reading, the anti-discrimination parable The Sneetches, should be required reading.
Most of the things I deal with as president would be solved if everybody read about the Sneetches, he said, because there are some people who think they’re special ’cause they’ve got stars, and some who feel bad ’cause they don’t.
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