ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — President Barack Obama began a three-day bus tour Monday that will give him a chance to hear directly from a public frustrated with Washington even as energized Republican presidential hopefuls mount counterattacks at every turn.
Air Force One landed midmorning at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and Obama disembarked under sunny skies and greeted a small crowd at a rope line. He then boarded an unmarked black bus for a 40-minute drive south to Cannon Falls, Minn., for a town hall event. Eager to get out of Washington, Obama struck a casual tone, ditching his suit and tie for a sports coat and khakis.
Obama's first bus trip as president will take him through Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, a region that helped launch him to the White House in 2008, and where Republican presidential hopefuls are now battling it out. It comes on the heels of Republican Michele Bachmann's weekend victory in the Iowa Straw Poll — and after the president spent much of the summer holed up in the nation's capital enmeshed in bitterly partisan negotiations on the debt crisis that cratered his approval ratings and those of Congress amid a faltering economy and high unemployment.
The president will get a chance to absorb the public's anger and try his best to respond as he holds five town hall events in three days. In between he'll drive long stretches on farmland and rural highways, likely making unscheduled stops here and there at local eateries and other gathering places.
It's officially a presidential tour, not a campaign trip, but with the 2012 campaign already under way the trip will surely take on a campaign feel at times.
En route to Minnesota, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama's trip was "unrelated" to the surge by Bachmann, the Republican lawmaker from that state. Carney defended the campaign-style bus trip as a normal part of "doing what presidents do" — getting out in the country and talking with people about the economy and his ideas to help it. The president faces no primary challenge within his party.
Obama is unlikely to engage any of his potential GOP rivals by name, aides said, but he's already indicated plans to draw sharp contrasts between his ideas on the economy and the Republican approach, which the president recently dismissed as a "bill of goods" that amounts to little more than slashing spending on vital programs like education and Medicare.
At the same time, aides say that coming off a debt deal that included deep cuts without raising any taxes, the president is braced to hear complaints from disaffected Democrats tired of his compromises with Republicans, and from a public generally sick of dysfunctional Washington.
Along the bus route in Cannon Falls, Chris Illa from a neighboring town stood with her grandchildren hoping to catch a glimpse of Obama. Illa, who is unable to work because of a disability, said she hasn't lost faith in the man she voted for in 2008.
"You can't blame the president for everything. He's doing the best he can do," she said. "I feel like the government needs to just compromise — a marriage is what I think of it as and a marriage is about compromise."
In Cannon Falls, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus rallied a few dozen tea party members and College Republicans not far from the park where Obama was to hold his town hall meeting.
"We won't stand idly by while he uses our hard-earned tax dollars to spin his failure to put America back to work," Priebus said.
After his event in Cannon Falls, Obama drives south into Iowa where he holds another town hall Monday afternoon in Decorah.
On Tuesday the president holds what the White House is billing as a "rural economic forum" in Peosta, Iowa, near the Illinois border, where he'll be joined by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to announce some initiatives for rural areas. He'll wrap up Wednesday with town hall meetings in Atkinson in northwestern Illinois, and then in nearby Alpha, Ill., before returning to Washington. On Thursday he flies with his family to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts for his annual summer vacation.
The bus tour itinerary takes Obama through three states he won in 2008 but where he now needs to shore up his standing. In Iowa, Obama returns to a state that handed him a key victory over Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008 but where Republicans have now been blanketing the state in preparation for its first-in-the-nation caucuses, attacking the president at every turn.
Associated Press writers Brian Bakst in Cannon Falls, Minn., and Erica Werner and Ben Feller in Washington contributed to this report.