ALPHA, Ill. — During a three-day tour by bus of the Midwest, President Barack Obama provided an early snapshot of his re-election strategy, one in which he’ll try to convince voters that his approach offers the rational path and seek to define Republicans as so unwilling to compromise they wou
ld risk financial chaos.
And despite alarming levels of unemployment and a volatile market, the president has also revived a theme from his first campaign — optimism — in a manner that paints Republicans as cynical and uninterested in solutions.
In Decorah, Iowa, Obama declared he’d propose a major jobs package to Congress in September and said, “And my attitude will be, ‘Get it done.’ ” In Cannon Falls, Minn., he said, “What is needed is action by Congress. It’s time for the games to stop. It’s time to put country first.” And in Peosta, Iowa, after outlining what he had proposed so far, Obama said, “We could do even more if Congress is willing to get in the game.”
In Alpha on Wednesday, at the last stop of the tour, Obama continued to pound away at the GOP. “There’s a group of folks who think, ‘I’d rather see my opponents lose than see America win,’ ” he told a crowd of hundreds at the Country Corner Farm Market.
“We’re tired of the games. We’re tired of the posturing,” Obama said. “Think about country ahead of party. Think about the next generation instead of the next election.”
The White House insisted the tour of rural hamlets across Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois was not a campaign swing, but the trip had the trappings of a candidate wooing voters: There were the town halls, the photo-friendly events at ice cream stands, the cheering crowds, and a focus on jobs and the economy at every stop.
In a sense, the three-day tour was a sort of road test of Obama’s upcoming re-election campaign. Along with the all-jobs, all-the-time approach, there were plenty of roadside photo ops with kids and dogs, goodwill stops at high schools, handshakes and high-fives along rope lines, and talk of everyday concerns — paying the mortgage, college funds, Social Security cost-of-living increases.
Once the president is back in Washington, he and his team likely will have to operate their campaign in a political environment similar to the one that prevailed this summer. The White House has struggled to push even small-scale economic measures through a largely gridlocked Congress, so any big-ticket proposal will almost surely lead to a battle, particularly in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Judging by the speeches on the bus trip, Obama may have concluded that he’s better off running against Congress than seeking to deal with its Republican leaders.
There are risks in that approach. Americans are weary of partisan fighting and hungry for solutions. Polls show frustration with Washington at historic levels — and it may not be enough for Obama to leverage that unhappiness to get across the finish line and gain a second term. And it’s one reason why, next month when lawmakers return to work, the president will be hounding them to pass some of his economic proposals, even as he stands ready to condemn them on the trail if they refuse.
Most of his remarks during the tour kicked off with a call for political unity to tackle the nation’s problems, but quickly shifted from there, displaying a push-pull tension. When he wasn’t telling Americans about the need for political compromise, he was castigating Republican do-nothings.
That didn’t sit particularly well with Rep. Bobby Schilling, who attended Obama’s event Wednesday in Atkinson, Ill. Schilling is a Republican who was elected in November riding a surge of voter anger and “tea party” support. “The politics, the demagoguing, we need to stop it,” Schilling said. “We’ve got people out here who are truly struggling.” Obama won this part of Illinois in 2008.
John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said Obama should decide before long which theme he wants to employ and stick with it.
“You have to decide which way to go,” Geer said. “You can’t have both. He’s flailing away.”
Geer says Obama should ignore calls on the left to be more combative and inflexible and instead try to stay the course and court independent voters by looking like the reasonable man in a capital full of hotheads. “Why can’t you fight for compromise? Why can’t you be a raging moderate?” he said. “That’s what the public is.”
But some in the crowd at Obama’s town hall event earlier in the day in Atkinson said they wanted to see a feistier president.
“There’s an old saying: ‘You can’t fix stupid,’ ” said Larry Eckhardt, 54, of Little York, Ill. “He’s gotta learn that.” Republicans, he said, “are on an entirely different page.”
Don Hepner, 70, of Moline, said: “I think he should be fighting more. He’s doing what he was accused by (Sarah) Palin of doing during the campaign: He’s being a community organizer.”
Hepner said the president shouldn’t try to cut a large-scale deal to fix the economy, but should push through what he can. “While he’s waiting for the big wave, he should get in some rowboats and get some things done,” he said.
Obama didn’t pull many punches during his three-day trip. He struck a nerve with Republicans by again and again charging that House Speaker John A. Boehner “walked away” from a massive legislative deal to cut the deficit during the debt ceiling talks. He portrayed the current divided government as “dysfunctional” and “paralyzed.”
Still, while Obama’s public remarks were often filled with implicit threats against resistant Republicans, he also talked at length about the promise and potential of America, and how the three days viewing the country aboard a specially outfitted bus had reminded him of that.
“Flags, little kids ready to go back to school, grandparents in their lawn chairs, folks out in front of the machine shop, out in front of the fire stations,” the president said Wednesday in Atkinson, reeling off what he had witnessed.
He touched upon red-blooded American motifs. “We’ve got folks in America driving Kias and Hyundais. I want to see folks in Korea driving Fords and Chryslers and Chevys,” Obama said Tuesday in Peosta. ” I want to sell goods all over the world that are stamped with three words: ‘Made in America.'”
And in a not-too-subtle rebuke of the tea party movement, he also at times offered a full-throated defense of government.
“You’ll hear a lot of folks, by the way, say that government is broken,” he said at his first stop in Cannon Falls. “Well, government and politics are two different things. Government is our troops who are fighting on our behalf in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s government. Government are also those FEMA folks when there’s a flood or a drought or some emergency who come out and are helping people out. That’s government. Government is Social Security. Government are teachers in the classroom. Government are our firefighters and our police officers, and the folks who keep our water clean and our air clean to breathe, and our agricultural workers. And when you go to a national park, and those folks in the hats — that’s government.
“So don’t be confused,” Obama said, “as frustrated as you are about politics, don’t buy into this notion that somehow government is what’s holding us back.”