President Obama greets people at the airport in Fletcher, N.C., at the start… (Jewel Samad, Getty Images )
Reporting from Millers Creek, N.C., and Washington — Bowing to political necessity, President Obama pushed Congress to pass his jobs plan in "bite-size pieces" that might prove tougher for Republican lawmakers to reject than the $447-billion package voted down by the Senate last week.
Obama's advisors had initially presented the jobs plan as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. But that strategy collapsed last week after Senate Democrats failed to muster the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster and force a vote on a plan that has become the centerpiece of Obama's agenda.
After weeks spent demanding that Congress "pass this bill,'' Obama rolled out a new message Monday at the opening of his three-day bus tour through North Carolina and Virginia: Pass specific elements of the bill, one by one.
Speaking at West Wilkes High School, the president said that "even though they said no the first time, we're going to give them another chance.''
"I think maybe the first time, because we had it all in one bill, they … didn't know what they were voting against,'' Obama said. "So we're going to chop it up into bite-size pieces and give them another chance to look out for your job instead of looking out for their own jobs.''
The Senate plans to cast a vote as early as this week on the first component of Obama's plan: $35 billion to save the jobs of public school teachers, police and firefighters.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made the announcement as Obama set out on his trip.
"We're going to do our utmost to do this as quickly as we can," Reid told reporters. He promised "one jobs bill a week.'' Each would be financed by a version of a previously proposed surtax on people earning more than $1 million. In the case of the first bill, it would be a 0.5% tax.
Senate Republicans immediately denounced the $35-billion proposal as another bailout for public-sector workers. Past efforts to ship funding to cash-strapped states did not prevent teacher layoffs, they said.
"It is disappointing that Senate Democrats are still focused on the same temporary stimulus spending that's failed to solve our jobs crisis," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Day one of the bus tour took Obama through Republican parts of a state that will be a battleground in the 2012 presidential election. The high school is in Wilkes County, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly 2 to 1.
Obama hopes such visits will build bipartisan, grass-roots support for his jobs plan and put pressure on Republican lawmakers to vote his way. He said Republicans faced a stark choice: Pass legislation preventing layoffs of public employees, or come home and tell constituents why teachers, police and firefighters must lose their jobs.
"If they vote against taking steps that we know will put Americans back to work right now, then they're not going to have to answer to me,'' Obama said earlier in a visit to Asheville, N.C. "They're going to have to answer to you.''
It's unclear whether Obama is a persuasive messenger in the small, conservative towns he is visiting. He stopped at a barbecue place in Marion, N.C., on Monday, where he got a polite but hardly ecstatic greeting from the lunchtime crowd.
After meeting Obama, one of the customers, pastor Bob Ritter of Eastside Baptist Church, said he prayed for the president but was unhappy about government "bailouts.''
"Picking winners and losers is the way I viewed a lot of the decisions,'' he said.
The White House describes the bus tour as an "official'' trip, meaning taxpayers rather than the reelection campaign are footing the bill.
It doesn't seem coincidental, though, that Obama is focusing on a part of the map that was central to his commanding electoral college victory in 2008.
Obama won North Carolina that year by the slimmest of margins. Still, he was the first Democratic presidential candidate to capture the state Jimmy Carter in 1976. And he put Virginia back in the Democratic column for the first time since Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory in 1964.
Winning the two states again next year won't be easy. Obama's poll numbers are dropping, largely because of the weak economy. His jobs bill represents the last, best chance he'll get before the election to put the economy on a more promising track.
Nicholas reported from Millers Creek and Mascaro from Washington.