The economy and 2012 loom over Obama’s bus tour of the Midwest

President Obama will travel the Midwest by bus in August to talk up his job-creation efforts and try to shore up political support in battleground states.

Obama will embark on a three-day tour from Aug. 15 – 17. The administration said Wednesday that the trip had long been planned, but wouldn’t outline an itinerary beyond saying the stops would be in the Midwest.

{mosads}The bus is a rare mode of travel for a sitting president. Commanders in chief usually travel in the comfort of Air Force One or Marine One, and on the ground, the president has a blast-proof limousine for all occasions.

The trip might help explain why the Secret Service purchased two armored buses for its fleet earlier this year. The protective agency told The Hill it planned to use the buses during the presidential campaign — with one bus designated for the Republican nominee — and also for large entourages of visiting dignitaries.

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A tour through the Midwest is likely to take Obama through states vital to his 2012 reelection bid, including some spots where his party saw significant losses in the 2010 midterm elections.

The White House is billing the trip as an administration event, and it will run the operation, not Obama’s reelection campaign.

“He looks forward to talking to the folks about growing the economy, creating jobs,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney at Wednesday’s press briefing.

The White House was so tight-lipped about the details of the trip that it’s unclear how big of a spectacle the tour will be. There were no details as to whether the bus would bear the presidential seal or what kind of motorcade would accompany it on the highway, or whether local officials would be asked to help provide protection.

Obama might be looking to capture the kind of magic President Truman enjoyed during a 1948 whistle-stop train tour, said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. 

“I think he is beleaguered, exhausted,” Baker said. “And I think that getting out and meeting the people is kind of an energizing experience for the president.”

Presidents have typically used trains for these types of trips, according to Baker, who couldn’t recall an instance of a sitting president using a bus outside of a specific campaign-related outing.

Republicans detected political overtones in the news of the trip and accused the president of mixing his presidential and political activities.

“I think everything that the president does is all political,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus on a Wednesday conference call during which he assailed Obama’s fundraising trip to Chicago.

He said the president was trying to “mash” his trip together with politics.

“He just so happens to be doing a bus tour throughout the Midwest, which is going to be a battleground during the upcoming election in 2012,” Priebus said.

The timing of the tour, during the annual congressional recess in August, allows Obama to use the bully pulpit relatively unimpeded by opposing Republican voices in Congress.

“The idea that the president of the United States should not venture forth into the country is quite ridiculous,” Carney said of suspicion toward the impending journey. “It is absolutely important for the president, whoever that is, in the past and in the future, to get out and hear from people in different communities.”

The president already faces accusations from Republicans of focusing too intently on fundraising and politicking, and three major fundraisers Wednesday evening in Chicago, timed to coincide with Obama’s birthday, added fuel to the GOP attacks.

Obama won many of the Midwest’s largest and most populous states in 2008, including Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Indiana, which hadn’t been carried by a Democrat in decades.

In 2010, the region swung back to the GOP, as Democrats lost House seats in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. GOP candidates also won Senate seats in North Dakota, Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio.

Obama has long been mindful of his standing in the region, and he has been attentive to Midwestern states in trips promoting his agenda. He made a number of visits in the last two and a half years to Ohio, most recently to Toledo, where he promoted the work his administration has done to help the ailing auto industry — another point the administration and its political allies have pressed hard in the Midwest.

But Obama still faces difficulties. A mid-July Quinnipiac University poll found Ohio voters virtually split over whether Obama deserved a second term. The last candidate to win the presidency while losing Ohio’s electoral votes was Republican Richard Nixon in 1960.

The unemployment rate in Ohio is 8.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The president’s bus tour precedes the post-Labor Day period in which attention toward next year’s presidential campaign is likely to skyrocket.

Republicans are also trying to make a play for the Midwest.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R) campaign on Wednesday released a new video attacking the president for the poor economy in his native Illinois, while a spokesman for Tim Pawlenty (R), a former governor of Minnesota, said that campaign was best suited to win big in the Midwest.

“These battleground states in the Midwest are where the 2012 election will likely be won or lost,” said Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant. “President Obama will have a lot of trouble succeeding here if Republicans nominate a candidate with a record of winning statewide in the upper Midwest.”

Jordy Yager contributed.

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