DECORAH, Iowa — President Barack Obama’s Midwestern tour is offering a mix of offense and defense that signals both his governing approach for the remainder of his term and the evolution of a campaign message for his re-election bid.
Obama 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.
On Tuesday, the second day of a three-day bus tour, he was spending the day promoting rural economic policies, among the series of remedies he is pushing to fire up anemic job growth. 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.
The president began with an early morning workout at a Decorah gym and later chatted with a few locals outside his hotel before getting on the bus to his next event, a White House Rural Economic Forum at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta.
“Welcome to the 50s,” one man told Obama, who hit the half-century mark with his birthday this month. Obama pointed to the man’s gray hair and said: “I’m catching up to you.”
The president’s agenda of the day was proposals to help farm regions, including some ideas that are already under way and do not require additional government spending.
More broadly, his 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.
“If your voices are heard, then sooner or later these guys have to start paying attention,” he said. “And if they don’t start paying attention then they’re not going to be in office and we will have a new Congress in there that will start paying attention to what is going on all across America.”
The proposals include 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.
Though classified by the White House as an official presidential trip, the tour’s first day had the distinct feel of a campaign excursion. The president’s motorcade, at times numbering nearly 30 vehicles, rumbled over 160 miles through small towns and cornfields in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. Its most prominent feature was the president’s bus — not the colorful transports of campaigns, but a dark, imposing vehicle recently purchased for $1.1 million by the Secret Service.
The settings of the two outdoor town halls were in picturesque locales, one with Minnesota’s Cannon River as a backdrop and the other in Iowa amid hay bales against a red barn lit by a setting sun.
Obama’s rhetoric had a campaign pulse as well.
He attacked the Republican presidential field, recalling a moment in last week’s GOP presidential debate when all eight of the candidates said they would refuse to support a budget deal with tax increases, even if tax revenues were outweighed 10-to-1 by spending cuts.
“That’s just not common sense,” Obama told the crowd at a town hall-style meeting in Cannon Falls, Minn.
He took a shot at GOP front-runner, Mitt Romney, though not by name, over the health care system he instituted while governor of Massachusetts that is similar to the Obama-backed federal law that Republicans now oppose.
“You’ve got a governor who’s running for president right now who instituted the exact same thing in Massachusetts,” the president said. “It’s like they got amnesia.”
Obama also got an earful from two tea party supporters who challenged him on reports that Vice President Joe Biden had agreed with congressional Democrats who characterized the conservative movement as terrorists.
“He said we were acting like terrorists,” Iowa tea party activist Ryan Rhodes said, confronting the president after the Decorah town hall as Obama worked a rope line of audience members. “What we stand for is limited government and a balanced budget,” Rhodes continued.
Obama countered that Biden was making the point that almost failing to raise the debt ceiling was irresponsible.
“He wasn’t objecting to the balanced budget amendment, he was objecting to us almost defaulting,” Obama said. As Rhodes persisted, and Obama continued to shake hands, the president added, “It doesn’t sound like you are interested in listening.”
In both town halls, Obama cast himself as a compromiser, a trait White House aides say resonates with independent voters and lives up to his 2008 pledge to change the ways of Washington.
“I make no apologies for being reasonable,” Obama declared.
But some Democrats maintain Obama has gone too far, caving in to Republican demands and having little to show for it.
His first questioner in Iowa, a woman who declared herself a strong supporter, wondered whether Obama had compromised on key principles by not fighting for the repeal of Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, or for agreeing to make some cuts to Social Security and Medicare during the debt ceiling showdown.
“So I’m just curious, moving forward, what prevents you from taking a harder negotiating stance, being that it seems that the Republicans are taking a really hard stance?” she asked.
Obama said the risk of raising taxes on all Americans forced him to compromise and extend all the Bush-era tax cuts until the end of 2012. He also said the consequences of a government default were too great to risk a failed deal on the debt ceiling.
But he promised to assemble a plan to boost the economy that he will present to Congress in September.
“And if they don’t get it done, then we’ll be running against a Congress that’s not doing anything for the American people,” he said, “and the choice will be very stark and will be very clear.”