DECORAH, Iowa - President Barack Obama ditched Washington, D.C. Monday to kick off a three-day Midwest bus trip that had the air of a campaign tour, with cheering crowds, stops for pie, pictures with smiling children and barbs at Republicans – including his prospective 2012 opponents.
The bus trip comes as polls find the American public increasingly worried about the stalled economy and weak job market, but Obama said the biggest stumbling block to recovery was partisanship in Washington.
“You’ve got to send a message to Washington that it’s time for the games to stop,” he told crowds here and at his first stop in Cannon Falls, Minn., the first of two town halls.
“With the markets going up and down last week and this downgrade, a lot of folks were feeling a little anxious and distressed,” Obama told the crowd near the banks of the burbling Cannon River. “Some folks worried that we might be slipping back. I want all of you to understand that there is nothing that we’re facing that we can’t solve with some spirit of America first, a willingness to say we’re going to choose country over party.
“There is no shortage of ideas to put people to work right now. What is needed is action on the part of Congress.”
In tiny Decorah, where he stood before an iconic red barn, his stage flanked with hay bales, he was pressed to defend his compromises on the debt ceiling fight and health care by a largely supportive crowd, including one woman who said she was a “big supporter,” but asked him what prevented him “ from taking a harder negotiating stance” with Republicans.
“Sometimes you’ve got to make choices to do what’s best for the country,” Obama said. “That’s what I tried to do.”
The tour of small towns in three Midwestern states that Obama carried in 2008 and needs to win in 2012 comes as the Republican field of challengers is taking shape and signals the start of the presidential campaign. Though the White House said the trip was official business — the president will announce new jobs initiatives Tuesday at a White House Rural Economic Forum in Iowa — the Republican National Committee sought to raise money for its 2012 campaign off the venture, dubbing the trip Obama's "Taxpayer Funded Debt-End Tour” and soliciting contributions.
"It's time to stand up for Main Street U.S.A. and bring a halt to the 'Debt-End' Express," the RNC said. For Obama, the trip comes just before he leaves Washington for a 10-day vacation and as a recent Gallup poll found him with the lowest approval ratings since he took office in 2009 — hovering at 39 percent.
Earlier, in Cannon Falls, Obama brought up the Republican presidential candidates' debate last Thursday night, in which all 10 GOP presidential hopefuls turned thumbs down to a hypothetical deal to tame the deficit that would be weighted 10 to 1 in favor of spending cuts to tax hikes.
"That's just not common sense," the president said.
He also took a swipe at presumptive GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, though he didn’t mention his name. Defending the individual mandate in his health care plan — which Republicans vow to repeal — Obama said: “You've got a governor who's running for president right now who instituted the exact same thing in Massachusetts.
“This used to be a Republican idea and. Suddenly some, it's like they got amnesia.”
He was in exceedingly friendly territory fielding questions at the outdoor Minnesota town hall, which had the festive air of a Fourth of July cookout, including a massive American flag flanking the stage. Obama spoke under towering trees with the river behind him. The audience sat at picnic tables covered in blue and white cloths.
“What a spectacular setting,” the president said as he arrived. “Let’s get the grill going.”
Some in the audience got to City Hall at 1:30 a.m. Sunday to score free tickets, and several said Republican opposition to Obama’s initiatives had put them more firmly in the president's camp.
“How can you get anything done when no one supports you?” asked Tracy Hamann, 41, who works at a small company in Cannon Falls that manufactures plastic wraps for underground piping. “He was dealt a really bad hand, and the Republicans are doing absolutely nothing to help him change it.”
Hamann said she had firsthand proof that the president’s economic policies had benefits: The stimulus act required that all new underground pipe be wrapped in plastic manufactured in the U.S.
“It’s been a help for us,” she said.
Katrina Karlsen Carlson, 51, lost her job last October and has yet to find a new one. “There is nothing out there,” she said. She scored a picnic table just two seats away from the presidential lectern and said she doesn’t blame Obama for her poor job prospects.
“That our boat is still afloat, he deserves so much credit,” Karlsen Carlson said. “It was like the Titanic when he took office and we didn’t sink.”
Karlsen Carlson — like many Minnesotans, she’s of Norwegian ancestry, her husband Swedish — voted for Obama in 2008 and will do so again, she said.
“We need to think for ourselves,” she said. “These Republicans would have us believe this economy is of Obama’s making.”
Along the bus route, however, some Minnesotans displayed cooler feelings: “Obama take your BS and go home,” read a sign posted on a giant steer on a bluff along the highway.
The president was to speak later at the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, where a crowd waited amid haystacks between two red barns, one topped with a weathervane of a cow. And an
The trip brought Obama to Iowa just four days after his 2012 Republican rivals held sway over the airwaves, competing for voters by bashing his tenure.
The president offered no new ideas for job creation but outlined a number of measures that he’s been pushing, including an infrastructure bank to rebuild crumbling highways and bridges.
He reiterated his call for increased tax revenue as part of any plan to cut the federal budget deficit, at one point citing investor Warren Buffett’s recent New York Times essay in which Buffett called for the U.S. to “stop coddling ‘billionaires like me.‘ “
“He pointed out that he pays a lower tax rate than anyone in his office, including the secretary,” Obama said.
The visit fell two days after Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann clinched the straw poll of Iowa Republicans, but there were few fans of the Republican congresswoman at the president’s event.
“I’m praying that people do not believe Minnesotans are anything like her,” Karlsen Carlson said, calling Bachmann’s stance on the debt ceiling “embarrassing, mortifying.
“She’s not one of us,” she said.
Kathy Taylor of Inver Grove Heights, Minn. was standing with her grandchildren with other onlookers about a block or so from where Obama had lunch.
"He's doing as good a job as he can," she said, but she hasn't decided whom she'll vote for. She's considering Bachmann.
"I'd still like to see a whole lot less government. . . . I love her energy; I love her convictions. I have the same kind of convictions she does."
As for Obama, Taylor said: "He wanted change, change, change. We haven't seen that kind of change."
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