By Sam Youngman - 08/15/11 06:20 PM EDT
President Obama kicked off his Midwestern bus tour on Monday blasting his would-be opponents in a campaign-style event in Minnesota.
While White House officials have repeatedly insisted that Obama's trip is official business — a claim disputed by Republicans — the president clearly had politics on his mind, taking a thinly veiled shot at Mitt Romney and bringing up last week's Republican debate in Iowa.
"None of them," Obama said. "None of them would take it. Think about that. I mean, that's just not common sense."
The president, wearing no tie and with his shirt sleeves rolled up, did not face much criticism from a crowd that appeared to be supportive of his efforts.
Instead, the questions provided Obama with a platform from which to launch an attack on Republicans that he previewed at a stop last week in Michigan, blasting the GOP Congress.
The president said that he hopes "when [Congress] gets back in September, they're going to have a new attitude."
Criticizing gridlock and Republican intransigence, Obama told the crowd that he was there "to enlist you in a fight."
"We are fighting for the future of this country," Obama said. "And that's a fight we are going to win."
Obama even went as far as to use the exact words his one-time Republican rival Sen. John McCainJohn McCainTrump's new debate challenge: Silence Senate rivals gear up for debates McCain opponent releases new ad hitting his record MORE (R-Ariz.) did during the 2008 campaign, telling the crowd "it's time to put country first."
But as much as the president criticized politics for impeding progress on the economy, Obama offered a defense of the U.S. government, saying that government includes teachers, police officers and soldiers.
"As frustrated as you are about politics, don't buy into this notion that somehow government is what's holding us back," Obama said.
The president said that if government is "oppressive," then "that's a problem."
But he defended his healthcare law, seizing on the pejorative term "ObamaCare."
"I have no problem with folks saying Obama cares," the president said. "I do care."
The White House was adamant in the lead-up to the trip that the president was not campaigning, but doing his job by going out into the country.
"To suggest that any time the president leaves Washington it’s a political trip would mean that presidents could never leave unless they were physically campaigning on their own behalf, and he’s not; he’s out here doing his job and meeting with the American people," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One.
Before leveling his attack on the Republicans, Obama said, "I know it's not election season yet."
That is not the case in Iowa, where Obama was traveling later Monday.
In the Hawkeye State, the Obama name has been savaged in recent weeks, with the GOP presidential nominating contest hitting a fever pitch over the weekend with the Ames straw poll.