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Obama takes message to Midwest on bus tour

Swipes at GOP, but economic gloom is deep

President Obama, in Zumbrota, Minn., began a three-day swing yesterday that will also include stops in Iowa and rural Illinois. President Obama, in Zumbrota, Minn., began a three-day swing yesterday that will also include stops in Iowa and rural Illinois. (Jim Watson/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Mark Landler
New York Times / August 16, 2011

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CANNON FALLS, Minn. - For most of this summer, President Obama has been under siege in the White House. Yesterday, he became a road warrior, kicking off a three-day bus tour of the Midwest that provided him campaign-style opportunities to go after Republicans in a region vital to his reelection.

Traveling in a black bus with tinted windows and flashing red and blue lights that looked like something out of a “Mad Max’’ movie, the president urged audiences in Minnesota and Iowa to tell their elected officials they will no longer tolerate the partisan gridlock on display in the recent debt-ceiling talks.

“You’ve got to send a message to Washington that it is time for the games to stop,’’ Obama told a polite crowd of 500 people under a canopy of trees in Cannon Falls, Minn. “It’s time to put country first,’’ he said, echoing a line used by his Republican opponent in the 2008 presidential race, Senator John McCain of Arizona.

In his appearance in Cannon Falls, which came amid the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, Obama struck themes intended to appeal to moderate and independent voters, while drawing sharp contrasts with Republicans.

“I’m here to enlist you in a fight,’’ said Obama. He called on them to demand political leaders who choose “the next generation over the next election.’’ When Congress reconvenes next month, he said, he hoped it would move swiftly to tackle the nation’s fragile economy.

The three-state swing, which will include stops in rural Illinois as well as Iowa and Minnesota, is an effort by Obama to reclaim the initiative, after a dismal summer in which he was stymied by Congress on the debt talks, and then rebuked with a downgrade of America’s credit rating.

The trip is also putting Obama on stage in places where the Republican campaign for the presidency is heating up. Republicans held a straw poll Saturday in Ames, Iowa, that was won by Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

The president did not hesitate to take a shot at the Republican lineup, noting with an incredulous tone that none of the candidates, when asked at a recent debate, said they would support a deficit-reduction plan that included $1 of tax increases for every $10 of spending cuts.

“That’s just not common sense,’’ Obama said.

Obama also obliquely criticized Mitt Romney, noting that Republicans had supported health-care plans that contained individual mandates - as Romney did while governor of Massachusetts, and as Obama’s health-care plan does - only to disavow them later in what he described as a case of “amnesia.’’

In Cannon Falls, Obama got a warm reception from the crowd of mostly Democrats and independents, though there were skeptics, particularly those who had suffered most from the recession.

“It seems to me he could get more directly involved,’’ said Dennis Maloney, 55, who was laid off in the past year as a technician working on electromagnetic compatibility issues. “It seems that he sits back.’’

Other people were more generous. David Hauge, 77, a farmer, said, “People have got to remember how close we were to utter chaos’’ when Obama took office. He said he was baffled by the no-new-taxes pledge taken by many Republicans, adding, “I can’t imagine what it’s like to negotiate with them.’’

The president is traveling in a new $1.1 million bus purchased by the Secret Service. It is one of two that will be used by other officeholders and candidates protected by the agency.

White House officials said the point of the bus trip is to bring the president to bucolic places not easily reached by Air Force One.

In Cannon Falls, crowds lined the streets of the riverfront town and massed in front of the Old Market Deli, where Obama had lunch with five veterans. Smaller groups clustered in lawn chairs along the route to his next stop - Decorah, Iowa.

Speaking at a farm in Decorah, the president said voters never intended to have a broken government when they put Republicans in charge of the House and created a divided government last November. He challenged Republican lawmakers to hear the frustration of voters and to be willing to compromise on an economic agenda.

During the first day’s events, Obama spent a lot of time promoting his administration’s commitment to rural America, talking about plans to develop alternative fuels, erect windmills, and extend broadband networks to remote farms.

Still, that message took a back seat to the shadows over the economy, and Obama’s professed frustration with the broken politics of Washington. The president pleaded for patience, saying the United States had been dealt a string of bad luck but its job market would recover in time.

But he offered mostly familiar remedies like extending the reduction in payroll taxes and winning congressional approval of free trade agreements. Officials played down hopes for major announcements on this trip.

“I know you’re frustrated,’’ he said, “and I’m frustrated, too.’’

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