In what could be considered his campaign kickoff for the 2012 election, President Barack Obama told a town hall audience Monday that the nation's slowly improving economy is hampered by the impasse in the nation's capital.
Obama made the trip to Minnesota, which hasn't voted for a Republican presidential hopeful in 36 years, as his approval ratings hit the lowest of his presidency.
The president, who was elected on a pledge of "change we can believe in," is dusting off his playbook and trying to convey that he understands the plight and frustration of voters who are struggling in an economy that is having fits and starts.
Obama acknowledged that the last six months have not been great but he said some of those problems have been "self-inflicted," citing the battle to raise the nation's debt ceiling as an unnecessary distraction.
Despite an eventual deal to raise the debt ceiling, months of bickering between Republicans and Democrats over managing the national debt roiled stock markets, especially after a credit-rating agency downgraded U.S. debt. The president said such political gridlock shouldn't be allowed to be repeated and he called on Americans to lobby members of Congress to work on ways to improve the economy.
"We've got a willingness to play partisan games and engage in brinksmanship that not only costs us in terms of the economy now but also will place a burden on future generations," Obama said. "The question is can we break out of that pattern?"
Obama isn't the first president to run against Congress. In 1948, Harry Truman famously characterized the legislative branch as the "Do-nothing Congress."
The president aims to boost his approval ratings by taking his message to small towns across the Upper Midwest, University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said.
"He's been ensconced in Washington, D.C., surrounded by the bickering of politics as we've come to know it, and he's lost his touch with everyday Americans," Jacobs said. "Cannon Falls could be pulled out of a book on Americana. It just is a wonderful example of the heart and soul of America, and Barack Obama needs that setting and needs these kinds of exchanges to humanize himself."
Indeed, Obama sought exchanges with Minnesotans during his trip. He stopped by The Old Market Deli in downtown Cannon Falls for lunch with five veterans who served after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and spoke with others.
Among those who met Obama was Chris Heiman of Randolph, who had waited in the crowd on Fourth Street in downtown Cannon Falls to catch a glimpse of the president. Heiman was about two dozen who were picked out of the crowd by the Secret Service.
"I told him that my son just got back from Afghanistan from Friday," she said. "He asked me if he is OK and does he have family. I said, 'He does, a two- and a five-year-old.' He thanked me for his service and he kissed me and I am thrilled."
Mary Johnson of Cannon Falls was another resident who gathered downtown to try to see the president. The emergency room nurse said her son has been working sporadically for the past five years. Despite his struggles, Johnson said she's still voting for the president in 2012.
"I don't think it will be solved in two years," she said. "We need a little longer time and I think looking what happened in the last month, about the jobs that are coming. I think the economy is going to get better."
But Republicans are working to convince Johnson and others that they have a better plan for the economy. Minnesota Republican Party Chair Tony Sutton said Obama's visit to Minnesota shows that the state is in play in the 2012 election. He blamed the president for the nation's economic woes.
"We are here today because President Obama wants to talk about jobs," Sutton said. "And that's all it is — talk. Where are the jobs? Where is the summer of recovery? What happened to all of the stimulus money?"
The candidate who convinces moderates in both political parties and independent voters that he or she can fix the economy may be best equipped to win the election. Republicans are working to decide who their candidate will be. If the eventual Republican nominee is U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who just won Iowa's Straw Poll, President Obama could be making more trips to Minnesota.
The president continues his three-state bus tour today in Iowa before traveling to Illinois.
--- MPR News reporters Tim Nelson and Tim Pugmire contributed to this report.