In his three-day bus trip through rural America, President Obama began the process of shaping for voters the stark philosophical differences separating him from the GOP presidential candidates looking to knock him out of office.
Obama’s tact and rhetoric through his Midwest tour, which concluded on Wednesday, reflects the president’s difficult reality: He must convince voters that as tough as times are, they’d be much worse if his Republican adversaries were in power.
More than 30 years ago, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan asked voters a crucial question that has been posed, in some form, to voters about every incumbent president since: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? With a jittery market and the unemployment rate hovering above 9 percent, Obama has no choice but to tweak the question.
In town hall meetings and rural forums, Obama effectively called on voters to consider whether they can trust a Republican in the White House to look out for the middle class as the country tries to dig itself out of an economic malaise.
Speaking in downstate Illinois on Wednesday, Obama criticized the GOP field for its unwillingness to consider raising tax revenues to reduce the nation’s $14.3 trillion deficit and charged that Republican lawmakers who have signed pledges to refuse to back any increase in taxes have their priorities misplaced. He blasted Republicans for being more interested in protecting tax loopholes for billionaires and millionaires than looking out for working men and women.
“My pledge is to make sure every day I am waking up looking out for you, for the American people,” Obama said. “I don’t go around signing pledges, because every day whatever is going to be best for the American people—that’s what I am committed to and that’s how I think every representative in Congress should be thinking.”
In question-and-answer sessions with voters this week, he took aim at the Republican field and saved his most direct jabs for the two candidates who could very well be the biggest threat to his attempt to win a second term.
He responded to Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s vow to make Washington “inconsequential” in American lives with a plain-spoken counterpunch: The government can be “boneheaded” at moments, but ultimately it can make a positive difference. Obama also questioned whether Republicans have “amnesia” as they rail against the individual mandate in his health care reform law, a shot at putative GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney who included the individual mandate as he reformed the health care law in Massachusetts when he was governor.
And Obama lamented the disconnect between the decency of Americans and the sharp political rhetoric in Washington, charging that his political opponents were more concerned about the next election than the fortunes of the next generation.
To that end, a senior administration official said that Obama plans to deliver a major address early next month calling on lawmakers in the newly-created deficit super committee to come up with a package that slashes the deficit by more than the $1.5 trillion that was agreed to in this month's debt-ceiling deal. He will also press Congress to pass a series of measures that will boost job creation, the administration official said.
The White House has insisted that his bus tour through small towns wasn’t a campaign trip. But with the stops at a county fair in Illinois and the diner-counter conversations with everyday Americans, the optics of the trip often suggested otherwise.
Setting aside the semantic argument of whether Obama was a president on a listening tour or a candidate gearing up for a tough reelection, Obama did well by getting out of Washington. When he wasn’t criticizing Republicans as do-nothing obstructionists, he managed to strike a tone that could serve him well as the election campaign heats up.
In his interactions with everyday Americans in Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois over the last three days, there were moments when he seemed to summon the spirit of a once upstart presidential hopeful who took Iowa by storm in the summer of 2007 with rhetoric that was simultaneously hopeful while grounded by realism.
“Don’t bet against America,” intoned Obama, as he wrapped up a town hall in Atkinson, Ill., on Wednesday. “We’ve gone through tougher times before and we’ve always pulled out on top.”
Over the next 16 months, the president has to make the case that he’s the better bet to get the country over that hump.