President Barack Obama opened a three-day bus tour through the Midwest today with a stop in Cannon Falls, where he decried partisan intransigence and said Congress needs to focus on improving the economy.
Several hundred people gathered at a park for the town hall-style meeting on the economy, health reform and education. Many arrived more than five hours before the president was to take the podium.
The president is using the tour to try to regain momentum among voters after months of public frustration with Congress and the economy. He was greeted with enthusiasm and some skepticism.
By the time the forum started, the field at the Lower Hannah's Bend Park overlooking the Cannon River was packed with people of all ages.
Obama told the audience of about 500 that the nation's problems aren't too big for the country to fix if the nation's political leaders start to work toward solutions.
He railed against partisan politics of the last six months and said some of the obstacles to growing the economy are "self-inflicted," pointing to what he called the unnecessary recent debate over the nation's debt ceiling.
"Some in Congress would rather see their opponents lose than American win," Obama said. "[They] ended up creating more uncertainty and more damage to an economy that was already weak. Now, we can't have patience with that kind of behavior any more. I know you're frustrated and I'm frustrated, too. We've got to focus on growing this economy, putting people back to work and making sure that the American dream is there not just for this generation but for the next generation."
After a 20-minute speech, the president stepped out from behind the podium and took questions from nine members in the audience, who he chose randomly. Several voiced concern about the country's economic outlook and the recent gridlock in Congress. Others asked about education, the environment and rural issues.
Gary Evans, who runs a broadband company in Winona, supports the president's policies, particularly his efforts to use federal stimulus spending to expand Internet access. Evans told Obama he wants Washington leaders to work together solve the nation's problems.
"It was already apparent as the debt debate went on that the mood in American had shifted again to skepticism," Evans said. "So I'm hoping that you and your colleagues do everything possible so that confidence is restored to the country and that we have a bright future."
Citing the company Evans runs as an example, Obama said using Internet connections to expand was just one example of how businesses can improve the economy.
"There are incredible opportunities in terms of business growth but it requires a connection to wider markets," the president said. "The days are gone when any business is going to succeed just by selling right where they're located."
Earlier in the morning, Republicans accused Obama of mixing policy with politics by touring the Midwest at taxpayer expense. About 150 people rallied at a downtown Cannon Falls reality office with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton .
Charlene Swanson carried a sign that read "Change Direction" as she listened to Obama's speech on car radios blaring along Fourth Street. Swanson and her husband Jim traveled from Rochester to register their opposition to Obama, and didn't like what she heard.
"It was lies. It was constant. It was just a joke," Charlene Swanson said. "Same thing: millionaires and billionaires, millionaires and billionaires. It's all you ever hear -- the same old rhetoric."
Not far from the protests, hundreds of people gathered on Fourth Street, the town's main road, to catch a glimpse of the president as he went through town.
Among them was Laura Gill, a commercial real estate broker from Eagan, Minn., who brought her son Connor to Cannon Falls to show the president what she thought. He sported a portrait of Abraham Lincoln labeled "Republican" on his stroller.
"In general, I don't think he's leading this country in a free direction," Gill said. "I think we need more freedom and more free enterprise. As a business person, I think we need less regulation and less taxes."
The president said he's willing to support Republican efforts to erase the nation's deficit but also wants to raise taxes on the nation's top earners. That proposal has made little headway in Congress because House Republicans oppose it.
After his visit to Minnesota, Obama will travel through Iowa and Illinois. Although he captured the three states in the 2008 general election, Republicans saw gains in last year's mid-term elections.