President Obama arrives at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport in Minnesota. (Jason Reed / Reuters )
Reporting from Minneapolis — Burdened by sagging poll numbers, hamstrung by poor economic news, and trapped in Washington for much of the summer because of the debt ceiling fight, President Obama will seek to reverse his recent fortunes by hitting the open road.
Obama on Monday will embark on a three-state, five-town bus tour deep in the heart of the American Midwest, hoping to tell the public—and potential voters--some small-business success stories and highlight economic development in rural areas. He’ll also be looking to rebut criticism that he’s not focused on finding solutions to bolster the flat-lining economy.
The campaign-style swing comes at a time when a new Gallup Poll shows the president sliding below a 40% approval rating for the first time—and when Republicans appear energized by the entry of Texas Gov. Rick Perry into the 2012 presidential field, as well as the blossoming candidacy of Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Although the White House says the timing is coincidental, Obama will be visiting Iowa on the heels of Bachmann’s triumph in the GOP straw poll and Perry’s visit to the state, delivering a counterargument to the candidates’ incessant attacks on his handling of the economy. It should also serve as a reminder of happier times: His victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses served as the springboard to the Democratic presidential nomination.
The tour will launch in the small town of Cannon Falls, Minn., on Monday, where the president will conduct a town hall, and then continue on to small hamlets in Iowa and Illinois along the spine of the Mississippi River. Obama won all three states over John McCain in 2008, but such rural towns sit outside the president’s political comfort zone.
Still, Obama made regular stops in rural outposts during his first campaign. The trip, White House aides say, is part of an economic initiative to help such communities gain access to credit, spur agricultural innovation, and better connect to the world’s digital business infrastructure.
On Tuesday in Iowa, the president will host a rural economic forum that will be attended by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and other campaign members that will be similar to an event the White House held in Cleveland in the spring.
The president could be colliding directly with the "tea party" forces that have helped disrupt his first term. When he visits two tiny towns in Illinois on Wednesday, he’ll pass through a region that sent two freshmen, Reps. Randy Hultgren and Bobby Schilling, to Washington last year as part of the Republican wave.
The risk for the White House is that when many critics, including Democrats, are clamoring for Obama to do something big on the economy, a three-day jaunt down America's backroads could end up looking like just the opposite. He's also likely to hear complaints from local residents about his administration's economic and environmental policies, as well as the divisive healthcare overhaul.
The White House maintains the president will confine his remarks to the economy and will not go after his potential GOP presidential opponents. But at the very least, the trip should afford him a chance to renew his connection with a public that has been showing signs of increasing discontent with his administration--while perhaps reminding it of Obama the promise-laden candidate as opposed to the president who at times has appeared under siege by intransigent Republicans, disappointing economic news and a wildly erratic stock market.
The see-sawing financial markets may provide one undercurrent of tension during the three-day tour; Bachmann, Perry and Mitt Romney perhaps another. White House aides say not to expect a grand economic address during the trip, but Obama’s critics, which include Democrats, are watching and waiting.
“I continue to respect him greatly as a human being,’’ said Peter Buttenwieser, a major Democratic fundraiser who supports Obama’s re-election. “I consider him a friend. I’m extremely disappointed in the way in which he has conducted his presidency, above all on the jobs and economic issues.’’
Buttenwieser suggested that Obama deliver a game-changing speech on the economy on a par with the address Obama gave on race relations during the 2008 campaign.
“It has to be from the heart and it has to be both intellectual and emotional,’’ he said.
Paul Begala, a former campaign aide to Bill Clinton who now advises a political action committee, Priorities USA Action, started by two ex-Obama aides, called for “bold action.”
“The whole focus of the country for the last month has been on these terrible negotiations over the debt ceiling. That hurt everybody. He’s got to turn the page,’ Begala said. “The president can’t wave a magic wand, but he has the power to set the agenda. Now’s the time.’’