Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
President Barack Obama makes an unscheduled visit to the African American Policy in Action Leadership Conference, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House campus in Washington.
WASHINGTON — An aggressive President Barack Obama declared Wednesday that congressional Republicans are more interested in dividing the country than in strengthening the economy and accused them of working to overturn advances achieved during his presidency.
"They're more focused on turning back the clock," he told a prominent women's legal group.
The president's criticism reiterated complaints about Republican opposition to his jobs bill and the health care law he shepherded through last year. But he tailored his comments to the largely female audience of the Women's Law Center, a legal advocacy group that is friendly to his administration.
He said Republicans want to overturn the country's new health care law and would let health insurance companies once again charge women higher rates and prevent millions of women from obtaining tests such as pap smears and breast exams. And he pointed to the defeat of a proposal that would have protected teachers against layoffs, noting that three-quarters of them are women.
"Lifting up women lifts up our economy and our country," Obama said. " Unfortunately, not everybody in Washington seems to feel the same way."
The dinner honored women who were Freedom Riders in 1961, riding buses across the south to test a U.S. Supreme Court decision banning segregation in interstate transportation.
"The Freedom Riders had faith that America could still be perfected," Obama said. "And it is only because they did that I am able to stand here as President of the United States.
The last time the president spoke to the women's legal group was in 2005, when he was a new senator from Illinois. Since then, he said, "our daughters live in a world that is fairer and more equal than it was six years ago."
The speech was an opportunity for Obama to address a key constituency — Obama won a substantial majority of women in 2008 and his campaign team hopes to reprise that in 2012.
He drew attention to the two women he nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court — Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. He cited the service of Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House from 2007 to 2011, and praised Hillary Clinton as "one of the most formidable presidential candidates we've ever seen" and as "one of the best secretaries of state that this country has ever known."
He marveled at the winners of the Google Science Fair, three girls who visited him in the Oval Office. One, he recalled, was 17 and had discovered a way to improve treatment for ovarian cancer.
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"And when I asked another one of the winners, Lauren Hodge, if she had skipped a grade in school, she informed me very politely that she had skipped two," he said.
But the president had no admiration for his Republican adversaries.
He accused them of picking away piecemeal at his health care law and of trying to halt money to Planned Parenthood.
"These folks know they can't win on the big issues, so they're trying to make the fight about social issues that stir up their base,"he said. "They're spending their time trying to divide this country against itself rather than coming together to lift up our economy."