After a weekend dominated by Republican White House hopefuls, President Obama hit the campaign trail Monday.
The president kicked-off a three-day tour of the Upper Midwest in a specially outfitted bus with plans to visit small towns in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, listening to voters' frustration with Washington, and venting some of his own.
For much of the past month, as Republican candidates crisscrossed Iowa, Obama was trapped in Washington by the seemingly endless debate over the federal debt ceiling. With that crisis now in the rearview mirror, aides say the president is eager to hit the road. His first stop was Cannon Falls, Minn., and an outdoor town hall meeting on the tree-lined banks of the Cannon River.
The president, sleeves rolled up, told a crowd of about 500 people sitting around picnic tables he was not just there to enjoy the late summer sunshine. Instead, he said he wants to enlist them in a fight against gridlock in Congress that he says has bottled up measures that could otherwise boost the sluggish economy.
"There is no shortage of ideas to put people to work right now," Obama said. "What is needed is action on the part of Congress. A willingness to put partisan politics aside and do what is right for the country."
White House spokesman Jay Carney says the president is also eager to listen to voters on this trip about what he called "the real economy" in small towns of the Midwest. Betsy Frazier said the picture in Cannon Falls is not pretty.
"So many people here are struggling. [There's] a lot of housing foreclosures just right here in Cannon Falls," Frazier said. "A lot of people laid off from jobs that were not the greatest anyway, but they were jobs. People are underwater with their mortgages and they just need some good jobs and some hope that it will get better."
Hope has long been Obama's most potent weapon — but it's wearing thin. Consumer confidence is slumping and so is the president's approval rating, slipping below 40 percent for the first time this week.
Obama said Monday that people would be more confident if they thought their political leaders were working together. So far, Frazier sees little sign of that.
"I just want somebody to take some leadership and do something good," she said. "Everyone's constantly running for re-election now instead of putting out what's best for the country — especially Congress. I guess I'm more dissatisfied with Congress than [with] the president."
Republicans have taken aim at the president's bus tour as pure politics, on the taxpayers' dime. They say that he's offered nothing new in the way of jobs programs. Obama acknowledged that the ideas he highlighted today — such as renewal of the payroll tax cut and government-backed financing for public works projects — have been kicking around for months, with nothing to show for it.
The White House said the president will propose new job-boosting ideas in the weeks to come, but winning approval for any new spending will be difficult at a time when many in Congress and Obama himself are fixated on deficit reduction. Obama said it's possible for Washington to do both.
"The key is not to cut more out of programs for poor folks or programs for seniors. The key right now is to get a long-term plan for fiscal stability," Obama said. "And in the short term we should actually make more investments that put people to work and get the economy moving."
After launching his tour in Minnesota, Obama headed for Iowa, where he'll host a forum on rural development Tuesday. All of this is just a warm-up for the fall, when the debate over deficit reduction, economic stimulus and the 2012 election campaign will all shift into higher gear.