WASHINGTON -- Over the next few days the country will get a glimpse of a President Barack Obama rarely seen in recent months -- the one who engages with voters, not lawmakers, and kicks back in Midwestern diners, not just the Oval Office.
The president sets out Monday for a three-day bus tour through Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois that will give him a chance to hear directly from the public in a region that helped launch him to the White House in 2008, and where Republican presidential hopefuls are now battling it out. It comes 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 begins midmorning Monday when he arrives in Minneapolis before heading by bus about 40 miles south to Cannon Falls, Minn., for his first town hall event.
It's an official White House tour, not a campaign swing, but it's also the first bus trip Obama has embarked on since he toured the country seeking the presidency. And with the 2012 campaign already under way the trip will surely take on a campaign feel at times, especially when Obama visits Iowa just after voters there have conducted the first test vote of the GOP presidential primary, selecting Michele Bachmann in the Iowa straw poll.
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.
After his event in Cannon Falls, around midday, 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.
Obama made a similar outing last year, traveling the Midwest in a two-day, three-state tour in April 2010 that took him to Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. There was no bus, but the president's motorcade made hours-long drives through rural areas, passing school children waving American flags and seniors sitting on lawn chairs.
The trip gave the president a chance to engage in some of the grassroots politicking he perfected in 2008 during weeks spent campaigning in the small towns that would help carry him to victory in places like Iowa. Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on his way back to Washington, Obama said the trip reminded him of his early days in politics.
"It was a reminder that sometimes there's a mismatch between the way politics are portrayed in Washington and how people are feeling," the president said at the time. "I think it's a less toxic atmosphere."