DECORAH, Iowa — President Obama kicked off a three-day Midwest bus trip Monday that had the air of a campaign tour, with cheering crowds, stops for pie, pictures with smiling children and barbs at Republicans.
The bus trip comes as polls find Americans increasingly worried about the stalled economy and weak job market, but Obama said the biggest stumbling block to recovery was partisans hip in Washington.
"You've got to send a message to Washington that it's time for the games to stop," he told crowds in Iowa and at his first stop in Cannon Falls, Minn.
"With the markets going up and down last week and this downgrade, a lot of folks were feeling a little anxious and distressed," Obama said. "Some folks worried that we might be slipping back. I want all of you to understand that there is nothing that we're facing that we can't solve with some spirit of America first, a willingness to say we're going to choose country over party.
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"There is no shortage of ideas to put people to work right now. What is needed is action on the part of Congress."
In Decorah, he was pressed to defend his compromises on the debt ceiling fight and health care by a largely supportive crowd, including one woman who asked him what prevented him "from taking a harder negotiating stance" with Republicans.
"Sometimes you've got to make choices to do what's best for the country," Obama said. "That's what I tried to do."
The tour of small towns in three Midwestern states that Obama carried in 2008 and needs to win in 2012 comes as the Republican field of challengers is taking shape and signals the start of the presidential campaign.
Though the White House said the trip was official business — the president will announce new jobs initiatives Tuesday at a White House Rural Economic Forum in Iowa — Obama brought up his potential rivals at both stops.
The Republican National Committee sought to raise money for its 2012 campaign off the venture, dubbing the trip Obama's "Taxpayer Funded Debt-End Tour" and soliciting contributions.
"It's time to stand up for Main Street U.S.A. and bring a halt to the 'Debt-End' Express," the RNC said.
For Obama, the trip comes just before he leaves Washington for a 10-day vacation and as a recent Gallup poll found him with the lowest approval ratings since he took office, hovering at 39 percent.
Earlier, in Cannon Falls, Obama brought up the Republican presidential candidates' debate Thursday, in which all 10 GOP presidential hopefuls turned thumbs down to a hypothetical deal to tame the deficit that would be weighted 10 to 1 in favor of spending cuts to tax hikes. "That's just not common sense," the president said.
He was in friendly territory fielding questions at the outdoor Minnesota town hall.
"How can you get anything done when no one supports you?" asked Tracy Hamann, 41, who works at a small company in Cannon Falls that manufactures plastic wraps for underground piping. "He was dealt a really bad hand, and the Republicans are doing absolutely nothing to help him change it."