Obama dismisses conservative critics

July 11, 2008 8:49:26 PM PDT
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was under fire from conservatives for suggesting that American children should learn a foreign language. Meanwhile, his Republican rival John McCain was reaching out to women voters. Obama, speaking at a rally in Dayton, Ohio, on Friday, batted away conservative criticism over a comment he made about Americans' lack of foreign language skills.

"The Republicans jumped on this. I said, absolutely immigrants need to learn English, but we also need to learn foreign languages," the likely Democratic nominee said as the 1,000-plus crowd in a school gymnasium cheered. It's a position he has long held.

"This is an example of some of the problems we get into when somebody attacks you for saying the truth, which is: We should want our children with more knowledge. We should want our children to have more skills. There's nothing wrong with that. That's a good thing. I know, because I don't speak a foreign language. It's embarrassing," Obama said chuckling as his audience did the same.

At issue was a remark the Illinois senator made Tuesday in Georgia that drew laughter from the crowd - but disdain from conservatives and groups advocating English as the official U.S. language. His remark has caused buzz on the Internet and talk radio.

The Americans for Legal Immigration PAC said in a statement, "Barack Obama has stepped on a political land mine by stating Americans should be forced to learn to speak Spanish." But that's not what Obama said.

Obama was answering a question on education when he said he doesn't understand people who say "we need English only."

"I agree that immigrants should learn English," Obama said. "But instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English - they'll learn English - you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language."

He argued that the country should be emphasizing foreign language study in classrooms.

"You know, it's embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is 'merci beaucoup!"' Obama said, laughing.

On Friday, McCain was speaking to a mostly female audience, a day after Obama teamed up with his former rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to speak to women voters.

McCain told several hundred women in western Wisconsin that his tax cut plans would be particularly helpful to women because so many of them own or work for small businesses.

"Yesterday in New York, Senator Obama went on at great length about how much he cares about women's issues," McCain said at a town-hall forum in Hudson, where women vastly outnumbered men. "I believe him. But when you cut through all the smooth rhetoric, Senator Obama's policies would make it harder for women to start new businesses, harder for women to create or find new jobs, harder for women to manage the family budget, and harder for women and their families to meet their tax burden."

Obama's campaign disputed the claims and noted that McCain opposed a Senate measure to lengthen the time that workers have to file pay discrimination lawsuits, a priority for some women's groups.

McCain told the audience that he has a record of supporting equal pay for women. He later told reporters he opposed the Senate bill because he didn't want "open-ended litigation by trial lawyers." He said he has demonstrated his support for equal pay "in a whole broad variety of ways, from support of women in the military to all kinds of laws that provide employment" to women.

Republicans believe McCain has a chance to pick up Democratic and independent women who are angry or disappointed that Clinton lost her bid to become the first female president. But Friday's event in Wisconsin seemed geared to hard-core conservatives.

A woman drew loud cheers and applause when she told McCain: "The Democratic Party has moved so far to the left they're almost falling off of the planet. Will you hammer away at their socialist, Marxist philosophy?"

When the cheering finally died down, McCain revived it by answering, "Yes."

He eased the tone a bit later, talking of his willingness to anger fellow Republicans in the Senate by working with liberal Democrats.