By Sam Youngman - 08/15/11 09:15 AM EDT
President Obama, itching to spend more time outside of Washington, begins a three-day bus tour of the Midwest on Monday afternoon in Minnesota.
Obama will fly to St. Paul, Minn., on Monday morning and will hold two town-hall events in the afternoon in Cannon Falls, Minn., and Decorah, Iowa, where he will spend the night.
He does so as the Republican campaign to replace him hits a new gear, following the Ames straw poll in Iowa, and as much of the country frets over an economy teetering on the brink.
For the president, the trip is an opportunity to get out of Washington and into the heartland.
Obama was grounded inside the Beltway for much of the summer by the intense debt-ceiling standoff, which left House Republicans and the president with political wounds. The nasty debate took a toll on Obama's approval numbers and also hit the economy hard by triggering a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating by Standard & Poor's. A week of intense fluctuations in the stock market has only added to nervousness about the economy.
In response, Obama has pressed Congress to extend unemployment benefits and a payroll tax reduction unveiled in December, while signaling more jobs proposals from the White House could be on the way.
White House officials said not to expect to hear Obama unveil the series of jobs proposals the president promised during a fiery stop in Holland, Mich., last week.
But Obama is expected to use the three-day trip to highlight his own criticism of Congress and Washington as he increasingly looks to run against Washington in 2012 despite four years on the job in the Oval Office.
White House officials suggest the president is eager to spend more time outside of Washington as he looks to shake the debt-ceiling hangover.
"During the debt-ceiling debate we were trapped here, it felt like, for many, many weeks," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said Friday. "He got his first trip out of Washington [last week] to Michigan, and he’s looking forward to traveling back home to Illinois, to Minnesota, and also, of course, to Iowa, which is a place that always has had a special connection with this president and this White House."
In Michigan, Obama took a number of shots at Congress, saying the country would be worse off if lawmakers were to return to Washington before the end of their scheduled August recess. With Congress out of town for the next few weeks visiting with constituents, he'll have a chance to underline that message during his bus trip before he travels to Martha's Vineyard for his own August break.
The president will make his way through a region that is teeming with Obama's would-be Republican rivals.
In Iowa, for example, where Obama was rocketed to front-runner status with his landslide win in the state's 2008 caucuses, the president has been under assault from a GOP field that invaded the state for last weekend's state fair and the Ames straw poll.
The Republican primary race has been re-shaped over the weekend.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced on Saturday that he is running for the presidency, while Rep. Michele Bachmann's (R-Minn.) victory in the Ames straw poll on Saturday forced former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty out of the race.
Perry, seen as a serious challenger to the perceived GOP front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, as well as Obama, is scheduled to be in Iowa on Tuesday at the same time as the president, adding to the Republican omnipresence in the state that Obama has no intention of conceding in 2012.
White House officials have insisted the president's emphasis this trip is on the economy, not his Republican opponents. The bus trip is an official administration event and is not being run by Obama's campaign in Chicago.
Pfeiffer said the decision to go through Iowa had nothing to do with the Ames poll.
"We sort of have a rule, which is just because Republican candidates are campaigning in a certain state, that doesn’t prevent us from going there, because otherwise we would probably travel nowhere," Pfeiffer said Friday. "So there’s no magic to the fact that the straw poll is a few days before our visit."
Still, the trip gives Obama a high-profile opportunity to answer the criticisms leveled against him by Perry, Bachmann and other GOP candidates for president.
With the president's approval rating hovering around 42 percent and the country still nauseated with Washington in the aftermath of the debt-ceiling deal, administration officials acknowledged that Obama might find some criticism even as he returns to states he won in 2008.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Friday that he expects Obama to "detect a little frustration about the dysfunction in Congress."
Earnest also acknowledged the anger Democrats feel toward the president for what many think was a giveaway to House Republicans in the debt deal. After weeks of insisting that any deal to raise the debt ceiling had to be balanced between spending cuts and tax hikes on businesses and the wealthy, Obama ultimately signed a law that included no higher taxes.
"I also 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 in the context of this deficit debate," Earnest said. "But that is something that the president believes is an important part of leadership, and an important part of resolving this problem is moving off our maximalist positions and demonstrating a willingness to compromise."