ALPHA, Ill. (AP) — Confronting the most public anxiety yet of his Midwestern tour, President Barack Obama sought Wednesday to reassure an audience in his home state of Illinois that the economy would recover, but warned that Washington is not the answer to the nation's economic troubles.
He conceded that it will take at least a year for housing prices and sales to start rising, a key marker of an improved economy.
Obama ended a three-day Midwest bus tour with town hall-style meetings in Atkinson and Alpha, in western Illinois. In both places, he was peppered with questions — about regulations on farmers, housing, jobs and the effect of deficit reduction on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — that underscored the anxiety people across the country are feeling in a time of economic uncertainty.
He faced the unease as a new Gallup poll found a 26 percent public approval rating of his handling of the economy, the lowest finding of his presidency by the public opinion research organization.
In an interview with CBS News, Obama said the nation was not in danger of falling into another recession but was in jeopardy "of not having a recovery that's fast enough to deal with what is a genuine unemployment crisis for a whole lot of folks out there, and that's why we need to be doing more."
White House officials said Wednesday that Obama intends to unveil a jobs package and a plan to reduce the deficit in a major speech after Labor Day.
Capping the trip near a cornfield in Alpha, Obama fielded anxious questions about environmental regulations on farmers, the future of government health and welfare programs, and a potential increase in the estate taxes and the hardship that could create for family farmers.
At an earlier stop in Atkinson, he tried to reassure his audience that a brighter economy is ahead, but warned but said the federal government is not the answer to what's ailing the economy.
His comment about the housing market was in response to a grilling from a real estate company owner who said she had begun to see a turnaround in late spring but that her phones stopped ringing after last month's "debt ceiling fiasco," when a government default seemed possible.
"We have no consumer confidence after what has just happened," she told the president. "I should be out working 14 hours a day and I am not."
Obama agreed that the tense, last-minute negotiations over lifting the debt ceiling had sapped public confidence in the economy. "It was inexcusable," he said.
Without getting specific, he said the administration was mulling ways to encourage banks to resume lending. Companies are more profitable than ever, he said, but are hoarding cash instead of investing it. He said banks that are in the financial clear also aren't lending as freely as they had before.
He said growing the economy overall will trickle down to the housing sector, but that it will take time.
"I'll be honest with you, when you've got many trillions of dollars' worth of housing stock out there, the federal government is not going to be able to do this all by itself, government is not going to be able to do this all by itself," Obama said. "It's going to require consumers and banks and the private sector working alongside government to make sure that we can actually get the housing moving back again."
"It will probably take this year and next year for us to see a slow appreciation again in the housing market," he added. That prediction is in line with most economists and housing experts, who say it will take at least another year before home prices start to rise.
Home prices have fallen 32 percent since the housing boom in July 2006, according to the Standard & Poor's/Case Shiller home price index. But the industry remains in the doldrums despite historically low mortgage interest rates that during better economic times would encourage home-buying.
Obama also mocked the tea party, without mentioning it by name, and Republican candidates who sign anti-tax and other pledges.
"I take an oath," he said. "I don't go around signing pledges."
While Obama avoids speaking the names of potential GOP presidential rivals, his questioners did not. Some cited former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachman of Minnesota, showing that the presidential race had infused what the White House insisted was not a campaign trip.
The three-day trip took Obama through Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. He held four town halls and a forum on rural economies, and made unannounced stops at various eateries and schools.
Obama also made a renewed pitch for people to help him win policy and political fights with Congress by pressuring lawmakers to put the country's interests above all else.
"If you're delivering that message, it's a lot stronger than me delivering that message," he said.
Obama easily won his home state of Illinois in 2008. But Illinois elected five Republicans to the House in 2010 and also chose Republican Mark Kirk to fill Obama's former U.S. Senate seat.
AP Real Estate Writer Derek Kravitz in Washington contributed to this report.