LAWRENCE, Kan. (Reuters) - President Barack Obama finished up a two-day tour of the U.S. heartland on Thursday with a stop in a Democratic-leaning enclave of conservative Kansas to tout proposals to make childcare more affordable for those in need.
Hoping to build momentum for social policies he laid out in a defiant State of the Union speech, the Democratic president went to two politically conservative states to show his policies appeal to Americans from both main parties.
In Kansas, where Obama's mother was born, he joked that his roots in the state did not help his two campaigns for the White House. Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, is a rare Democratic-leaning part of the state.
"I lost two straight here. But that's OK," Obama said to an enthusiastic crowd of more than 7,000 at a university athletic facility. "I might've won sections of Lawrence."
The White House is hoping some of that enthusiasm could be telegraphed to a Republican-controlled Congress that is lukewarm to many of Obama's policy ideas.
His childcare proposals include a fund to help families afford care, raising the maximum childcare tax credit to $3,000 per young child, and starting an "innovation fund" to jumpstart childcare programs for parents who live in rural areas or who work odd hours.
"It is time that we stop treating childcare as a side issue or a 'women's issue,'" Obama said. "This is a family issue. This is a national economic priority for all of us. We can do better than we're doing right now."
The estimated $80 billion proposal would be part of Obama's broader tax reform announced last week, White House Domestic Policy Director Cecilia Muñoz told reporters on a call on Thursday.
In Washington, a spokesman for House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner criticized Obama's State of the Union plans for social programs that include making two years of community college free and universally available.
"Republicans are all for increasing access to quality, affordable education, but we don't need more top-down policies from Washington or new tax hikes on middle-income families saving for their children's college education," spokesman Cory Fritz said.
The White House often sets up events on Obama's trips to illustrate his policy priorities, and Thursday's was at a Lawrence school that was among the first recipients of funding for the government's Head Start early education program.
"What's your name?" one youngster asked the president. "I'm Barack!" he responded.
(This story has been refiled to add dollar sign in eighth paragraph)
Additional reporting by Julia Edwards in Washington; Editing by John Whitesides, Howard Goller and Richard Chang