Obama on the offensive
PEOSTA, Iowa (AP) - Seeking some help from rural America, President Barack Obama on Tuesday implored Iowans to share ideas with him about how leaders can give an economic jolt to the nation's heartland. He promised better days in a time of relentless joblessness, saying, "We'll get through this moment of challenge."
The president pulled into this northeastern Iowa town with some modest announcements of federal support, include targeting loans to rural small businesses and recruitment of more doctors for small rural hospitals. But he seemed more intent on getting some guidance himself, and presenting himself as a president who does not think Washington knows best.
"I'm looking forward to hearing from you about what else we can do to jumpstart the economy here," Obama told the farmers, business owners and others gathered at Northeast Iowa Community College for an economic forum put together by the White House. The president even took part in breakout sessions.
By the end hours later, Obama was praising the locals for being practical and realizing that government was neither the source of all their ills nor a savior, but a source of help. It was all a way for the president to immerse himself in people's real-life problems and get away from his own political ones in Washington.
The political backdrop was the same rural state where Obama's first run for the presidency took flight. On an official bus tour through the Midwest that in every way felt like a re-election campaign trip, the president was crossing Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois over three days before heading on a summer vacation.
In terms not heard from Obama in some time, he sounded nostalgic, and thankful for the escape.
"You're what gives me strength," the president said.
"As I was driving (through) those little towns in my big bus, we slowed down and I'm standing in the front and I'm waving. I'm seeing little kids with American flags, grandparents in their lawn chairs ... and passing churches and cemeteries, corner stores and farms," he said. "I'm reminded about why I wanted to get into public service in the first place."
Earlier, opening the forum, he took another shot at Republicans in Congress for what he called a harmful practice of putting party above country.
The presidential campaign, meanwhile, continued to shadow the trip.
Just down the road in Dubuque, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has jumped into the Republican race to oust Obama, said the president's bus tour was a folly.
"We know what the problem is: we're being over-taxed, over-regulated and over-litigated," said Perry, having lunch with voters at a riverfront brewery.
Obama, for his part, sought to identify with the work ethic and community pride of the picturesque region. He said a big American comeback won't be driven by Washington.
"It is going to be driven by folks here in Iowa. It's going to begin in the classrooms of community colleges like this one," Obama said. "It's going to start on the ranchlands and farms of the Midwest, the workshops of basement inventors, and storefronts of small business owners."
Obama's second day on the road once again took him into the rolling northwestern section of Iowa, a carpet of green corn and occasional sunflower fields that ultimately broke into the Mississippi River. He stopped for breakfast in Guttenberg with five business owners then drove through Dyersville, home of the Field of Dreams of baseball movie fame. The motorcade passed groups of onlookers, most curious residents displaying neither signs of protest or support.
Obama is offering signals of both his governing approach for the remainder of his term and the evolution of a campaign message for his re-election bid.
He is determined to use the reach of his office to build public pressure on Republicans to move his way on economic and fiscal policies, to counterpunch against the GOP presidential field, and to argue for his presidency with independent voters and rekindle enthusiasm among Democrats.
But the measures are targeted, such as making it easier for rural businesses to get access to capital, and far more modest than the ambitious $821 billion stimulus package he pushed through Congress in 2009 when unemployment was rising but still below the current 9.1 percent level.
Obama's economic message illustrates his current dilemma.
Republicans control the House and believe that addressing the nation's long-term debt will have a positive effect on the economy; they have no appetite for major spending initiatives aimed at spurring a recovery.
Embracing that demand for fiscal discipline, Obama has called for both spending cuts and increases in revenue, but he found few takers for that formula during the contentious debate this summer over raising the nation's debt ceiling.
With echoes of Harry Truman's 1948 campaign against a "do-nothing" Congress, Obama encouraged audiences at town hall meetings Monday in Minnesota and Iowa to rise up against congressional inaction. He did the same on Tuesday.
"You do your part. You meet your obligations," Obama said in Peosta. "Well it's time Washington acted as responsibly as you do every single day. It's past time."
Obama said his government was targeting Small Business Administration loans to rural small businesses, expanding job training to Agriculture Department field offices and recruiting more doctors for small rural hospitals.