President Obama arrives in N.C., says he's here 'to listen'

MILLERS CREEK, N.C. — President Barack Obama bused his way across western North Carolina on Monday, casting himself as a warrior for the besieged middle class and giving voters in this key swing state a full-fledged preview of the 2012 presidential campaign.

Channeling Harry Truman's long-ago run against a "do-nothing" Congress, Obama - sleeves rolled up, populist phrases flying - said Republicans blocking his job-creation plan on Capitol Hill have a "no-we-can't spirit" when hurting Americans hunger for "yes-we-can."

The bus trip, which will continue Tuesday in Guilford County and into Virginia, is an official tax-paid White House visit.

But the president's appearances at the Asheville Regional Airport and later at a high school in rural Wilkes County were more like partisan pep rallies, with chants of "Four More Years!" and "Fired up! Ready to Go!"

In the high school gym in Millers Creek, Obama got serious and specific when talking about how parts of his $447 billion jobs plan could help school systems hit by state and local budget cuts keep teachers and improve the classroom experience.

Citing the Wilkes County system, he said Superintendent Steve Laws, who introduced him to the crowd of nearly 2,000, has had to increase class sizes and do without new textbooks.

"And the last thing a superintendent wants is to lose good teachers," said Obama, whose current plan would send $35 million to states to keep from firing teachers, police and firefighters.

Laws publicly thanked the president for the $6.1 million the system got in the first federal stimulus package, saying it kept him from laying off teachers. "And I think it saved America," Laws said about the overall stimulus.

Echoing those remarks privately, in a meeting at the high school with Obama and other N.C. public officials, was Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat who chairs the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners.

"I said, 'Thank you for the education funding, and for the infrastructure (money) for our schools," Roberts reported. "He said 'That's what we're all about. Education is the future.'"

Earlier, in Asheville, Obama launched the three-day bus tour by telling a crowd gathered that he was in North Carolina "to listen."

"There doesn't seem to be much listening in Washington," Obama told a mostly supportive crowd at the Asheville Airport. The President is touring North Carolina and Virginia to build support for his effort to follow last week's Senate vote shelving his jobs-creation plan by acting on individual pieces of it.

He cited polls showing 63 percent of Americans support his effort to create jobs but said "100 percent of Republicans are opposed."

"That doesn't make sense, does it?" he said, to cheers from the audience. White House officials expect that Obama's $35 billion proposal to prevent layoffs of firefighters, teachers and police will be the first piece that Democrats try to get the Senate to pass.

Obama's latest foray into the state is yet another sign of how key North Carolina is to his re-election strategy. He narrowly carried the state in 2008, and was the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Since then, he's stepped up his wooing: He chose Charlotte to host the Democratic convention next year. And just last month, he visited the Triangle - touring a business in Apex and then touting his jobs plan to an auditorium full of students at N.C. State University.

Last week, Senate Republicans blocked Obama's full jobs package from advancing by threatening to filibuster. But the president said over the weekend that he'll keep pushing recalcitrant Republicans - and a few conservative Democrats - to approve individual pieces of the legislation.

Obama is hitting the road at a time when polls show him with some of the lowest ratings of his presidency. In North Carolina, an Elon University poll this month found that only about 42 percent of North Carolinians approve of the president's job performance.

But at least one poll suggests that, nationally, voters like the jobs bill - and approve of taxing the wealthiest Americans to pay for it.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 30 percent of those polled were in favor of the bill, with 22 percent opposed and 44 percent with no opinion. When the parts of the bill were explained, 63 percent favored passage.

During Monday morning's remarks, the President said that if GOP Senators oppose that piece of the bill, "they'll have to come down to North Carolina and tell kids why they can't have their teachers back."

But Obama also worked to build support for another piece of his bill -- a proposal to spend $50 billion on infrastructure, including rebuilding a runway and taxiway that are too close together at Asheville's airport. He said it "is work that can be done right now -- widening a runway to boost tourism."

He stressed two themes during his remarks, which lasted a bit more than 20 minutes. Several times, he used the phrase "right now." And he also told the gathering that he plans to listen to North Carolina residents.

"When you take the time to listen, you understand that a lot of people are hurting out there," he said. "Too many people are looking for work. Too many families are looking for that sense of security."

Saying that the construction industry has taken a hard hit in the Tar Heel State, Obama added, "Here in North Carolina, thousands of construction workers lost their job when the industry went bust. They have experience, they have skills. All they want is to be back on the job. And there is plenty of work to be done."

To chants of "Four More Years!" from the crowd, the President said, " appreciate the 'four more years,' but right now, I'm thinking about the next 13 months.

"We have to do something right now." Obama was accompanied by U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., when he stepped off Air Force One shortly before 10:45 a.m. Hagan said passing the President's bill would have a quick impact in North Carolina. "It would mean 8,000 jobs -- to refurbish our schools, to weatherize them, to make them more energy-efficient, and to put more science labs in many of our aging schools," she said.

Among those who came to see the President were neighbors Lynne Caldwell and Katherine Hensley of the Asheville area. Caldwell brought two of her children along. Son Graham Dugliss, 11, had the day off from school Monday because of a teacher workday, but daughter Sarah Dugliss, 7, was taken out of school for the day.

Caldwell said her father, who she described as a Fox-watching Republican, had made sure that she watched the Watergate hearings as a child. Caldwell remembers sitting with her father and watching Richard Nixon leave the White House in a helicopter after resigning.

"We want our kids to be in the moment, to know what's going on," she said. Both Caldwell and Hensley said they have felt the impact of the recession. Hensley lost her home to foreclosure, and Caldwell's home is in foreclosure. Caldwell said she lost her job as a teacher at UNC-Asheville, and her husband also is looking for work.

After his speech near Asheville, Obama left on his bus, stopping for lunch at Countryside Barbecue where he had a small barbecue plate and sweet tea. He then stopped by a Mast General Store in Boone, filling up a basket with candy before his speech at West Wilkes High School.

In Wilkes, it's questionable whether most of his fellow Wilkes Countians would agree with superintendent Laws' high marks for the president: In the 2008 election, Republican John McCain trounced Democrat Obama in Wilkes, 68 percent to 30 percent.

Then there's the issue of the blue-collar county's unemployment rate - it's now about 12.1 percent. "If the opportunity arises, there will be some folks asking questions," said Linda Cheek of the Wilkes County Chamber of Commerce.

"It's on everybody's mind - how are we going to get more jobs?" But Laws said he could use the kind of federal funds Obama's jobs plan could bring: Because of attrition and retirements, the 1,500-employee school system lost 120 people in recent years that it can't afford to replace.

And there are two elementary schools, Laws said, that "are badly in need of rebuilding." Aides on Sunday deflected questions about whether the trip - paid for with tax dollars, not campaign donations - was more about politics than policy.

Virginia, where Obama will make bus-tour stops Tuesday and Wednesday, is also a crucial Southern swing state. "There are people in Washington, D.C., and all across the country who are eager to ascribe political motivations to everything the president does," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "But an important part of his job is to travel out of Washington, to talk to people about the economy and how his economic policies are affecting them."

Still, N.C. Republicans blasted Obama last week for his "multimillion-dollar taxpayer-funded campaign."

McClatchy's White House correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this article.