President Barack Obama is kicking off a three-day trip through the Upper Midwest later this morning with a stop in the small southeastern Minnesota town of Cannon Falls. The last U.S. president to visit the city was Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Obama can expect to hear from residents about their frustrations with Congress and the economy.
Cannon Falls may only have one traffic light, but its three-block downtown is active. This is the kind of small town that's thrived, a place where people still browse antique shops, stroll down Main Street, and stop at the bakery every day for fresh bread.
Phil and Cindy Terpstra stopped by the Hi-Quality Bakery to buy a cake for their son on a recent day. They're frustrated with Congress but don't blame the president for the country's fiscal problems.
"The mess he took over, the people that created the mess, are right away fighting him like everything was his fault," said Phil Terpstra. "He's trying to explain stuff, and he's trying to straighten out the mess that he was given and nobody's working with him."
People here are upset by the country's current financial crisis. But views about the president vary around Cannon Falls, and Republican-leaning Goodhue County.
Baker Robin Knauer describes herself as a diehard Obama supporter. But she says with jobs and the economy as top concerns, she hopes the president will address how to jump-start hiring and help the middle class.
"I've done OK. My husband is working. His hours have been cut a little bit, but not too much. I have a job and feel fortunate to have it," said Knauer. "But the price of gas goes up much more though, I'll tell you, I don't know what we'll do. But I see a lot of people have lost their jobs, a lot of people come in here and they're distraught, because what do you do?"
Even though Cannon Falls has no dominant employer, the area relies heavily on manufacturing jobs, as well as health and education services.
Goodhue County's unemployment has come down from its peak of 9.3 percent in March 2009, and has run below the state's jobless rate on average for about the last two years. Now at 6.8 percent, it's just below the state average of 6.9 percent.
Cannon Falls Mayor Robby Robinson says business is soft but steady. The city of about 4,000 residents has weathered the recession without any major layoffs or businesses closing. He says one reason is the city's location.
"We're a bedroom community ... we have a lot of people that work in Rochester at the Mayo Clinic, and a lot of people that work up in the Cities and outside of Cannon Falls," he said.
“The mess he took over, the people that created the mess, are fighting him like everything was his fault.”Phil Terpstra, Cannon Falls
Still, many in Cannon Falls have the same message for the president -- to focus on job creation.
William Lacefield owns a small bike and canoe rental shop in this town along the Cannon River. Even though he supported Republican John McCain in 2008, he blames the financial crisis on forces beyond President Obama's control.
"I'm sure he's trying to do a good job. Every president who's been up there has tried to do a good job," said Lacefield. "But some of them have more influence with Congress and the Senate than others, and sometimes that helps promote whatever it is they're pushing."
Brian Kennedy, who owns the F.J. Moore Manufacturing plant, says his company has suffered in the recession. His grandfather started the sheet metal company in 1908. It makes sheet metal products that go on roofs to prevent water leakage.
Kennedy says business has been tough as people delay fixing their roofs. Last year, he was forced to lay off his first employee in 15 years.
"I was taught -- since I was no taller than this table -- to build a good product and deliver on time and I'd staying in business a long time, and to keep my word. And to live within our means," he said.
Kennedy doesn't hold Obama responsible for the country's economic troubles. But he agrees with Republicans' refusal to accept any tax hikes. He says many employers are still not hiring because they don't know what to expect from Congress.
"They're constantly playing patch-up with everything, instead of making a long-term plan and giving us something that we can plan on," Kennedy said, "so that business owners can basically make an investment, they'll create a job instead of having this uncertainty."
Kennedy and others acknowledge Obama alone can't do much to fix the country's fiscal problems. But they hope his visit to Cannon Falls can reassure them, in some way, about his ideas for growing the economy.