NEW YORK — Ensnarled in another political spat with Republicans, President Barack Obama conceded to a civil rights audience Wednesday that there are times when people "lose hope" over whether national politics will ever change.
But the president, officially running for re-election as of this week, stood by his record of the past two years as proof of real progress.
"In America, we rise and fall together," Obama told the National Action Network, the Rev. Al Sharpton's civil rights group. Promoting his efforts to revamp health insurance, education and consumer protection programs, Obama told the crowd to keep working with him.
"We will build an America where the ideals of justice and equality and opportunity are alive and well," the president said. "And we will reclaim the American dream in our time."
Obama's appearance kept a promise he made when he spoke to the group as a presidential candidate in 2007 and pledged to return.
It also took place in the shadow of a looming government shutdown as congressional Democrats and Republicans back in Washington struggled to reach agreement on how to finance the government for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year.
Before Obama spoke, the White House announced that he had added an evening meeting at the White House with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to try to work out a budget deal to keep the government running past a Friday midnight deadline.
In his comments to the civil rights group, Obama said his administration has more work to do to create opportunities for all Americans and close gaps in education and employment rates between different groups.
The president said Americans of all types are struggling to make good. But he also said the black community faces higher unemployment than other groups. And he said the poorest in society had to sacrifice the most during the recession.
Earlier, pitching the promise of energy independence in Pennsylvania, Obama cautioned that it's going to be tough to transition from America's oil-dependent economy and acknowledged there's little he can do to lower gasoline prices over the short term.
"I'm just going to be honest with you. There's not much we can do next week or two weeks from now," the president told workers at a wind turbine plant outside Philadelphia.
It's a theme Obama's struck before as he tries to show voters he's attuned to a top economic concern with gas prices pushing toward $4 a gallon.
Obama said he wants to move toward "a future where America is less dependent on foreign oil, more reliant on clean energy produced by workers like you." That will happen by reducing oil imports, tapping domestic energy sources and shifting the nation to renewable and less polluting sources of energy, such as wind, the president says. He has set a goal of reducing oil imports by one-third by 2025.
But the president said it won't happen overnight and if any politician says it's easy, "they're not telling the truth."
"Gas prices? They're going to still fluctuate until we can start making these broader changes, and that's going to take a couple of years to have serious effect," Obama said.