Children from public schools in Chatfield, Minn., help President Obama… (Jason Reed / Reuters )
Reporting from Decorah, Iowa — In the clearest expression yet of his 2012 reelection strategy, President Obama said he would send a jobs package to Congress next month, ask lawmakers to pass it, and campaign against them if they refused.
Obama made the declaration in a town-hall-style meeting in Iowa on Monday night. He is facing criticism for not advancing a bold strategy to bolster job growth and his reelection prospects.
"I'll be putting forward a very specific plan to boost the economy, to create jobs and to control the deficit," Obama said on the first day of his three-day Midwest bus tour. "And my attitude will be, 'Get it done.' "
If Congress fails to pass the legislation, Obama said, "the choice [in 2012] will be very stark and the choice will be very clear."
During stops in rural hamlets in Minnesota and Iowa, the president criticized a Republican-led House "that doesn't seem willing to make the tough choices to move America forward."
His comments marked the White House's continuing push to portray the GOP as the largest obstacle to economic growth, even as the president has faced attacks from the right and left for not doing more himself.
Obama appeared determined not to accept all the blame for the struggling economy he inherited. As lawmakers return home for their August recess, Obama wants them to feel the heat he's been getting — while pushing back at suggestions that he isn't standing up to congressional Republicans who have vowed to support only cuts in government spending, not revenue increases.
"Government and politics are two different things," Obama told a crowd earlier in Cannon Falls, Minn., listing public school teachers, firefighters, police officers, soldiers and relief workers as examples of government helping people. "That's government. So don't be confused, as frustrated as you are about politics. Don't buy into this notion that somehow government is what's holding us back."
With the economy expected to continue sputtering into next year, and little chance of Democrats and Republicans teaming up to pass a big-ticket jobs bill, Obama also may be rehearsing some "us versus them" lines for his campaign.
"What is needed is action by Congress," Obama said. "It's time for the games to stop. It's time to put country first."
Obama's swing through rural patches of the upper Midwest comes after a Gallup tracking poll showed the president last week had dropped below a 40% approval rating for the first time, and as Republicans appeared energized by the candidacies of Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. On Monday, Gallup's poll — a rolling average of three days' results — had ticked back up to 41%.
As Obama visited Minnesota, Republican front-runner Mitt Romney released an ad that featured several state residents suggesting the president should have stayed in Washington to focus on the economy.
Obama has tried to blunt such criticism by suggesting that after Congress spent months gridlocked over the national debt ceiling, lawmakers needed to return home to hear from their constituents.
Waiting for the president on a farm in Decorah, Bev Schroeder, 55, said she shared Obama's view that the GOP had been a roadblock. "I'm trying to think of one time where he had some bipartisan support on something having to do with the economy," said Schroeder, a resident of Urbandale, Iowa.
Not everyone in the audiences was an Obama supporter. Adam Nord, at the Minnesota event, was unhappy with the Democratic healthcare overhaul. "I don't think we should be forced to pay for healthcare if we don't need it," said Nord, 31, of Cannon Falls. "The government is going to start telling you you can't eat at McDonald's anymore."
But the president did not hesitate to claim his healthcare legislation as an accomplishment, riffing off the pejorative term Republicans have used — "Obamacare" — to describe his plan.
"I have no problem with people saying Obama cares. I do care," he said. "If the other side wants to be the folks that don't care, that's fine with me. I do care."
And Sue Kuhlmann, 60, of Rochester, Minn., an Obama supporter, didn't sound like she was much interested in Obama continuing to compromise. She wants a feistier approach.
"He needs to fight," said Kuhlmann, who called Obama "a good and gentle man."
"He's too nice," she said. "The Republicans fight dirty."
Earlier in the day, aboard Air Force One, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dismissed suggestions that Obama's tour was an extended campaign trip. Some conservatives have charged the president is seeking reelection at taxpayers' expense.
"To suggest that any time the president leaves Washington [that] it's a political trip would mean that presidents could never leave unless they were physically campaigning on their own behalf, and he's not," Carney said. "He's out here doing his job and meeting with the American people."