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In Wisconsin, Obama raps Gov. Walker's policies, praises Minnesota

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Barack Obama
President Obama arrived to speak at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Thursday.
Carolyn Kaster | AP

Updated 4:50 p.m | Posted 2:48 p.m.

President Barack Obama came to Wisconsin's bluff country Thursday to tout the country's economic gains and pitch new policies he said would help the middle class.

The president also targeted sharp words at Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who's expected to soon announce his presidential bid.

While not calling Walker out by name, he criticized Wisconsin's leaders for education cuts, tax relief for corporations and attacks on workers' rights to organize and collectively bargain.

He also talked up Minnesota's economic success.

"Across the river in Minnesota, they asked the top 2 percent to pay a little more," he told the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse crowd.

"They invested in things that help everybody succeed, like all-day kindergarten and financial aid for college students," he said of Minnesota lawmakers. "They took action to raise the minimum wage. They passed an equal pay law."

Barack Obama
President Obama shook hands as he arrived to speak at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Thursday.
Carolyn Kaster | AP

Obama also pointed to Minnesota's lower unemployment rate and higher median income. He used the comparison to trumpet his party's economic approach.

"We need better policies, because the bottom line is top-down economics doesn't work," he said. "Middle class economics works."

Outside the university's rec center, hundreds of people — mostly college students, university staff, and families with young children — waited in line for hours to see the president.

Among them was Rose Reinert, a single mother of two boys from La Crosse, who supports the president's overtime pay proposal, which would more than double the threshold at which employers can avoid paying overtime.

That means salaried employees earning less than $50,440 a year would be assured overtime if they work more than 40 hours per week.

The proposal would make up to 5 million more people eligible for overtime. But there are concerns it could raise costs for the private sector.

"This is an issue of basic fairness. If you work longer, work harder, you should get paid for it," Obama said.

Reinert said she's salaried and it would make a difference to her. "I'm struggling as a mom and it would really help."

Others Obama supporters were eager to see the president after the U.S. Supreme Court's recent rulings to legalize same-sex marriage and back the president's Affordable Care Act.

"I think we're part of history here," said Kim Christensen, who came with her father Arne Hoff. Both are teachers who live in rural Winona County.

But the excitement over the overtime pay proposal is premature, said Julian Bradley, of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

Barack Obama, Scott Walker
The president traveled to La Crosse, Wis., Thursday.
Carolyn Kaster | AP

Big corporations will find a way to deal with the overtime requirements, but small businesses will suffer, he added. He described Obama as legacy shopping in his final two years.

"He's got a Republican House and a Republican Senate. He's right now trying to make sure the President Obama that we remember is what he wants us to remember and not the failed policies of the last six years," he said.

Obama's visit to La Crosse to promote the overtime proposal makes sense, partly because it's a swing region, but also because the area has relatively lower incomes than the rest of Wisconsin, said University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political science professor Joe Heim, adding that "many people here, frankly, may benefit from it."

Obama's wage proposals come after he won a victory on a trade bill that gives him fast track negotiating authority. The move was supported by business, but vigorously opposed by labor groups.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.