Mired in one of the bleakest patches of his presidency, Barack Obama hits the US heartland Monday, seeking to rekindle the spirit of hope which swept him to the White House but has been crushed by a lame economy.
Obama will embark on a fabled ritual of American politics -- a bus tour to rural areas of Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, which have all felt the lash of the economic crisis and will be important to his 2012 reelection bid.Hope is a commodity in short supply, as fears mount that the tepid recovery from the worst economic crisis since the 1930s will fizzle into a second recession and with unemployment stubbornly pegged at 9.1 percent.A staggering 74 percent of Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction, according to a RealClearPolitics polls average, and a CNN survey this month found 60 percent think the economy is still in a downturn.Obama, reeling from a showdown with Republicans over debt, has seen his approval rating dip below 45 percent, and slowed growth in the economy and jobs market are casting a cloud over his 2012 hopes.
Just a few months ago, after the killing of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, many commentators were predicting Obama would stroll to the second term that every presidency needs to be termed a historic success.But when Republican Tea Party lawmakers drove the United States to the brink of a historic default in a row over raising the government's borrowing authority, Obama's prestige took a severe hit.Now, he can be demeaned by his political foes as the president who lost America's AAA credit rating, after Standard & Poor's concluded Washington brinkmanship meant America could not fix its economy.Even the media, which conservatives complained was soft on Obama in 2008, has turned against him, doubting his political backbone: New York Times commentator Maureen Dowd warned he was "strangely irrelevant in Washington."Critics also complain the president is fixated with cooperating with Republicans who have made no secret of their desire to destroy his presidency.Obama seems to have recognized his perilous position.
In a combative appearance in Michigan on Thursday he slammed Congress -- which has worse approval ratings than he does -- accusing Republicans of blocking his job creating programs.
He pressed home his attack in his weekly radio and Internet address on Saturday.
"We can no longer let partisan brinksmanship get in our way -- the idea that making it through the next election is more important than making things right... That's what's holding us back -- the fact that some in Congress would rather see their opponents lose than see America win.""You've got a right to be frustrated. I am. Because you deserve better."
The president has promised a package of measures to tackle the US deficit and unemployment within weeks, but its prospects in the Republican House of Representatives appear uncertain.For now, he is demanding Republicans pass an extension to a payroll tax cut, endorse his plan to help Iraq and Afghan war veterans find jobs and ratify trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.But some analysts believe Obama's political position is so precarious that he must make a bold, significant move."One thing he needs to do is show more leadership," said Tom Baldino, a politics professor at Wilkes University, Pennsylvania."He needs something dramatic to demonstrate he is in charge."
Professor Dan Shea of Allegheny College said Obama might consider a major new jobs program, and dare the Republicans to veto it, which would at least allow him to make a new case to voters.Obama would then be able to say "this is what you will get from me, this is what you will get from them," Shea said.The president embarks on his tour at a time when Republican presidential hopefuls are escalating attacks on his policies, and his prime vulnerability, the high unemployment rate.
The Republican of the moment, Rick Perry, who launched his campaign Saturday, accused Obama of presiding over an "economic disaster."In the last 70 years, no president has won a second term when the unemployment rate was greater than seven percent, apart from Ronald Reagan, who benefited from an economic growth spurt.But Obama has little reason to think things will get better soon -- even before the full impact of the slowing recovery became clear, the Congressional Budget Office predicted unemployment would be at 8.2 percent by late 2012.
Aides said that Obama will hold a succession of town hall meetings while on his bus tour to hear Americans tell of their economic struggles.
"People will be pleased to see the president outside of Washington, DC, out from behind the podium, spending time talking to the American people in their communities about the economy," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.