Economic Issues Drive Obama's Midwest Bus Tour

President Obama will host a forum on rural economic development in Iowa Tuesday. It's the middle stop on a three-day bus tour of the upper Midwest. As he talks about job growth, Obama is also testing out the themes that are likely to define his 2012 re-election campaign.

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Republican candidates have been all but living in Iowa these past weeks, trying to appeal to voters. Now it's President Obama's turn. He's hosting a forum on rural economic development there today. It's the middle stop on a three-day bus tour of the upper Midwest.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama could hardly wait to get out of Washington, climb aboard his big black campaign bus, and return to the ground that sprouted his White House bid more than three years ago. Even the soundtrack was right out of 2008.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL TAKE YOU THERE")

THE STAPLES SINGERS: (Singing) I'll take you there.

HORSLEY: But Mr. Obama acknowledged his tenure in the White House has not taken America where he it wanted it to go economically. Home prices are still dropping, incomes are stagnant, and millions of people are still out of work.

STAPLES SINGERS: And our job is not finished until every single American who's looking for a job can find a job. And until we have fixed the problems that caused me to run for president in the first place.

HORSLEY: The economy is Mr. Obama's singular focus on this bus trip. And that's how independent voter Robin Betsinger of Cannon Falls, Minnesota says it should be.

MONTAGNE: That's what I want to hear: more jobs. Increase the economy. I would say he's probably starting on the right path but there's a lot of improvement that needs to be done.

HORSLEY: But for months now, any effort to boost job growth in Washington has been pushed to the back burner in favor of deficit reduction, even though warning signs are flashing: the economy is getting weaker. Mr. Obama insists the government can cut the deficit and encourage jobs, so long as it doesn't sacrifice spending in key areas such as education.

STAPLES SINGERS: We can't eat our seed corn.

HORSLEY: People in this part of the country know about seed corn. The president's bus rolled through acres of corn and soybeans en route to his second campaign stop, a farm devoted to the exchange of heirloom seeds in Decorah, Iowa. There, Mr. Obama found a receptive audience and a camera-ready red barn.

Math professor Richard Bernatz from nearby Luther College welcomed the president's message of shared sacrifice.

STAPLES SINGERS: I think that there's enough people in the center of the political spectrum that are reasonable, understand that we all have to give a bit. And I think we're willing to hear that message. We just like the message heard, you know, said louder and clearer and more consistently.

HORSLEY: The president quoted from a new newspaper column by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who argues Congress should stop coddling the wealthiest Americans and raise their taxes. Mr. Obama also ridiculed the field of Republican presidential hopefuls for unanimously rejecting a hypothetical deficit-reduction plan that included $10 in spending cuts for every one dollar in tax increases.

STAPLES SINGERS: I mean that's just not common sense. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton - the last time we had a balanced budget - all of them understood that you have to take a balanced approach to solving our deficit and debt problems.

HORSLEY: But if the last two and a half years have left Mr. Obama disappointed about Republicans' unwillingness to compromise, some Democrats are disappointed by his flexibility. In this liberal college town, the toughest questions aimed at the president came from supporters like Emily Neal. She feels Mr. Obama has yielded too much on health care, Social Security, and the extension of the Bush tax cuts.

MONTAGNE: So I'm just curious, moving forward, what prevents you from taking a harder negotiating stance, being that it seems that the Republicans are taking a really hard stance?

HORSLEY: The president was forced to admit governing is harder than just traveling the country in a big black bus.

STAPLES SINGERS: My job as president goes beyond just winning the political argument. I've got a whole bunch of responsibilities which means I have to make choices sometimes that are unattractive, and I know will be bad for me politically.

HORSLEY: Despite his lowest approval ratings yet, Mr. Obama argued that on the economy, healthcare, energy efficiency, and the war in Iraq, he's moved the country in the right direction, even if not as far or as fast as supporters would like. That's a case he'll be making again and again over the next 15 months.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Decorah, Iowa.

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