WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama leaves the White House on Monday for a three-day bus trip, talking job creation at small towns across the Midwest in hopes of distancing himself from the "partisan brinksmanship" he says has poisoned the economy.
The trip isn't likely to be without bumps. Polls find that the partisan feud over raising the debt ceiling, the stock-market gyrations and a stubborn unemployment rate have left Americans more pessimistic about the economy and their future than at any time this year. Republicans already have accused Obama of mixing policy with politics by barnstorming in the battleground region — at taxpayer expense.
But White House advisers said it was a chance for the president — who spent most of last month trapped in Washington with lawmakers blaming each other for the debt impasse — to hit the reset button and connect with ordinary Americans in a bus that could roll into small towns, rather than Air Force One.
"Democrats, independents and Republicans expect to see their president of the United States outside of Washington, D.C., out from behind the podium, spending time talking to the American people in their communities," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
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Obama appeared this week to be trying out a campaign theme by blaming Congress — without a direction mention of Republicans — for the bitterness that led to an eleventh-hour debt limit agreement, and Earnest said the president was expecting to hear more anger on the road.
"The president does anticipate that he'll detect a little frustration about the dysfunction in Congress, and the strident position of some in Congress to put their partisan affiliation ahead of the country," he said.
Obama will be traveling to Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, three states he won in 2008 but that saw Republican gains last year. He needs the states in his column next year, and White House officials acknowledged that the president is likely to get an earful over his role in the debt ceiling deal, with some progressives accusing him of caving to Republicans.
"I anticipate that there will be some people who are supporters of the president, who voted for him last time, who will have some questions for him about the compromises that he was willing to make," Earnest said. "But that is something that the president believes is an important part of leadership ... moving off our maximalist positions and demonstrating a willingness to compromise."
A poll conducted for McClatchy suggests that voters don't blame Obama for the economy, but his favorability rating has plummeted to the lowest levels of his term in other polls. The trip outside the capital gives him an opportunity to reject some of the toxicity that Washington now represents, said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in New York, which conducted the survey for McClatchy.
"He wants to demonstrate in a very clear way that he is outside of Washington and is trying to turn the page on the unpleasantness of what has gone on," Miringoff said. "To go community by community is his way of trying to reconnect with voters who may feel he's become part of the loss of confidence people have in government."
Touring a high-tech battery manufacturer in Michigan on Thursday, Obama suggested that Congress should follow his lead: "Go back home, listen to people's frustrations with all the gridlock. ... And if they're listening hard enough, maybe they'll come back to Washington ready to compromise."
But the trip may only further antagonize Republicans, who accuse Obama of failing to deliver new ideas for jobs. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Thursday called the president's promise of rolling out new proposals for job creation "political grandstanding" and called on him to "outline his own recommendations to rein in the massive deficits and debt that are undermining job creation in our country."
But White House officials say they don't expect Obama, who met Friday at the White House with business leaders, to roll out any new plans or deliver a major economic policy speech on the trip.
"He views it as his responsibility to be on the hunt for new ideas all the time, " Earnest said. "It's certainly something that he'll talk about with small business owners and other folks that he meets along the trail of the bus tour."
The unemployment levels in the three states are at or below the national average and Obama is in relatively good standing, said David Schultz, a business professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. He suggests that Obama is looking to launch a pre-emptive strike — solidify his support in the states — as well as get some favorable media treatment.
"Minnesota, for one, doesn't look like a state that he's in danger," Schultz said. "But if he's here now, he doesn't need to come back next year and can focus on worry states, like Ohio,"
And Schultz suggests that a president who's been battered around in Washington is looking for some positive news coverage.
"I think he's also looking for some camera time, some enthusiastic, ordinary people in the heartland standing behind him," he said.
The bus trip falls just days after Republican presidential hopefuls square off at a straw poll in Iowa, the first step on the 2012 presidential campaign, but White House officials said the Iowa visit had nothing to do with the presidential campaign.
Still, on a conference call with reporters, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer acknowledged that the president and his administration feel a "special connection" to Iowa.
In January 2008, then-candidate Obama decisively won Iowa's presidential caucus and went on to clinch the Democratic nomination and the White House.
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