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By Matt Spetalnick
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama fired back on Thursday at critics who say he has few accomplishments of note in his nine months in office and declared he was just getting started.
In recent weeks, Obama has faced criticism both from liberals who want him to do more to advance causes such as gay rights, and conservatives who accuse him of taking too long to decide whether to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
A comedy skit on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" program a couple of weeks ago drew attention to the issue. An actor playing the president said, "When you look at my record, it's very clear what I've done so far, and that is: Nothing. Nada. Almost one year, and nothing to show for it."
The criticism was magnified after Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a week ago when even some commentators sympathetic to the president said it seemed premature.
Obama, making his first trip as president to see efforts to recover from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, opened a town-hall meeting by saying his work had led to some improvement in the U.S. economy and brought an overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system within reach this year.
"Now, just in case any of you were wondering, I never thought any of this was going to be easy," he said. "You know, I listen to sometimes these reporters on the news (who say) 'Well, why haven't you solved world hunger yet?'"
As the crowd laughed, he said: "Why hasn't everybody done it? It's been nine months. Why? I never said it was going to be easy. What did I say during the campaign? I said change is hard. And big change is harder."
In what seemed a reference to Republicans opposed to Democratic healthcare proposals, Obama accused them of "trying to stand in the way of progress."
"Let me tell you: I'm just getting started," Obama said.
'WHY DO PEOPLE HATE YOU?'
The town-hall meeting showed evidence of the partisan divide in America.
When the Democratic Obama introduced Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a rising star in Republican politics, some in the crowd booed until Obama settled them down and hailed Jindal as a hard-working politician.
At the end of the event, a young schoolboy named Terence Scott asked Obama, "Why do people hate you?"
"Well, now, first of all, I did get elected president, so not everybody hates me now," Obama replied. "I got a whole lot of votes."
"But you know, what is true is if you were watching TV lately, it seems like everybody's just getting mad all the time," Obama said, blaming the climate in part on politics and on concerns among Americans about losing jobs or their healthcare.
"And when things are going tough, then, you know, you're going to get some of the blame, and that's part of the job. But you know, I'm a pretty tough guy," he said.
At a Democratic fundraiser in San Francisco later on Thursday, Obama pressed the counterattack against his conservative critics, saying he believed in having a "loyal opposition" but rejected it "when some folks decide to sit on the sidelines and root for failure."
He insisted that he and his Democratic allies in Congress were "busy with a mop cleaning up somebody else's mess," alluding to the litany of pressing problems he inherited from his Republican predecessor George W. Bush.
"We don't want somebody sitting back and saying 'you're not holding the mop the right way, you're not mopping fast enough, that's a socialist mop,'" Obama said to laughter from hundreds of party donors.
(Writing by Steve Holland and Caren Bohan; Editing by Peter Cooney and Eric Beech)

Reuters