Facing more bad news on the housing front and a surge in the polls by his Republican rival, President Obama changed his tune Thursday night about some roundly criticized comments that entrepreneurs don’t build businesses on their own.
“I was saying the other day, we take pride in individual initiative and … we don’t like handouts,” Mr. Obama told supporters in West Palm Beach, Fla. “We don’t expect government to solve every problem and we don’t think the government should help people who don’t want to even help themselves.”
The president’s message differed in style from the one he delivered last Friday in Roanoke, Va., when he told a crowd: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. … If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
Since Mr. Obama’s remarks a week ago, presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and others in the GOP have seized on the president’s comments as proof that he doesn’t understand or appreciate the American system of entrepreneurship.
Thursday night in Florida, Mr. Obama tried to clarify his thinking about the common good, praising collective action without seeming to scold individualism.
“We also remember that that GI Bill that educated so many people — we did that together,” he said. “Hoover Dam, Golden Gate Bridge, we built together. The Internet was created because of investments that we made together. That’s how we sent a man to the moon — together. We’re not going to abandon those values and those traditions that ultimately made this the country that we love.”
The remarks came during a two-day campaign swing through Florida, Mr. Obama’s seventh this year to the nation’s biggest battleground state, with 29 electoral votes are up for grabs. Most polls show the president and Mr. Romney in a dead heat in Florida.
The Republican campaigned in Massachusetts on Thursday, and continued his theme of recent days, in hammering Mr. Obama’s entrepreneurs remarks.
“We’re a nation of risk-takers, of dreamers,” Mr. Romney said. “I just don’t think the president, by his comments, suggests an understanding of what it is that makes America such a unique nation.”
The weak economy and the foreclosure crisis are presenting bigger challenges to Mr. Obama in Florida than he faced four years ago, when he won the state by 3 percentage points over Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. The unemployment rate in Florida is 8.6 percent, slightly higher than the national average, and the state has the nation’s fifth-highest rate of home foreclosures.
With Florida’s large populations of retirees and Hispanics, there was more ominous news for the president as he started his trip. A new report Thursday from AARP showed that more than 1.5 million older Americans already have lost their homes since the Great Recession, with millions more at risk. Older Hispanics are among the hardest hit, AARP said.
Bloomberg News reported this week that massive eviction rates in Florida “have left holes” in the Obama campaign’s voter lists, making it harder to track down former supporters and ensure they go to the polls again in November.
The foreclosure rates in some Hispanic neighborhoods of central Florida have reached 30 percent.
The stakes in Florida are huge. The Obama campaign and its Democratic allies have spent about $13.5 million in the state on TV ads so far this year, and that sum has only allowed the president to stay even in the polls with Mr. Romney, whose campaign and allied groups have spent about $11.1 million. A Purple Strategies poll released Monday even shows Mr. Romney with a lead in Florida of 48 percent to 45 percent.
Nationally, a New York Times/CBS poll released Thursday shows Mr. Romney leading the president, 45 percent to 43 percent, the Republican’s first lead in the survey since January.
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman and Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said she expects the race in her state to remain close through Election Day.
As part of the president’s appeal to Florida voters, the White House announced Thursday that it will expedite the federal permitting process for five major port modernization projects, including Jacksonville and Miami in Florida; Savannah, Ga.; Charleston, S.C., and the Port of New York and New Jersey. The administration promised to complete all federal reviews for the Port of Miami by August, and said it expects to complete the deepening of the channel this year.
The president also is hoping to win over Florida’s seniors by warning them that Mr. Romney would take away some of their Medicare benefits.
“He plans to roll back health care reform, forcing more than 200,000 Floridians to pay more for their prescription drugs,” Mr. Obama said earlier in the day in Jacksonville. “He plans to turn Medicare into a voucher program. So if that voucher isn’t worth enough to buy the health insurance that’s on the market, you’re out of luck. It’s wrong to ask seniors to pay more for Medicare just so millionaires and billionaires can pay less in taxes. We shouldn’t be squeezing more money out of seniors who are just barely getting by right now.”
On Friday, Mr. Obama campaigns in Fort Myers and Orlando.