2011-08-17 08:56 PM
Obama made the bus tour across America's heartland as the campaign for 2012 presidential and congressional elections is heating up, and the president is weighed down by the stunted U.S. economic recovery, a gyrating stock market and 9.1 percent unemployment that have sent his approval numbers dipping to the 40 percent range.
His one consolation is that Congress is held in even lower esteem.
The tour _ covering three midwestern states _ has given Obama a chance to command attention just after Republican presidential candidates dominated the news last week with a debate and straw poll in Iowa.
Obama has used the trip to criticize his opponents and outline modest economic proposals in advance of Congress' return to Washington next month.
A White House official told the Associated Press Wednesday that the president _ who heads to the island resort of Martha's Vineyard Thursday _ would use some of his vacation time working on a major speech in which he would unveil new ideas for speeding up job growth and helping the struggling poor and middle class.
When he speaks to the nation shortly after the Sept. 4 Labor Day holiday, Obama is expected to outline a plan that includes tax cuts, jobs-boosting infrastructure ideas and steps that would specifically help the long-term unemployed. The White House official who previewed Obama's plans emphasized that all of his proposals would be fresh ones.
The official, who spoke anonymously because the speech plans and contents were still in the works, said Obama will also present a specific program to cut the suffocating long-term national debt and to pay for the cost of his new short-term economic ideas.
His debt proposal will be bigger than the $1.5 trillion package that a new "supercommittee" of Congress must come up with by late November.
The president will then spend the fall pressing Congress to take action as the economic debate gears up even more.
Angling for advantage, Obama and the Democrats have begun turning up the heat on the Republican presidential field, especially top-tier candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, linking them to the anti-tax, small government tea party, whose views are increasingly viewed as extremist by the general electorate.
Trying to use a guilt-by-association ploy, Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that Republican candidates must decide whether to "swear allegiance to the tea party" or work with Democrats to create jobs. After last week's Republican debate in Iowa, Obama campaign chief David Axelrod claimed the presidential contenders were "pledging allegiance to the tea party."
And a new video by the Democratic National Committee says Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates are "embracing extreme tea party policies."
Democrats first aimed such barbs at congressional Republicans, who hewed closely to tea party demands in shaping a debt-ceiling bill this month. It was harder to target the presidential field as long as attention centered largely on former governors Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman. All three are conservatives but not from the tea party mold, which places greater emphasis on uncompromising demands for unusually deep cuts in government spending and oversight.
A quick succession of events changed that over the weekend.
Bachmann, the House member from Minnesota who chairs Congress' tea party caucus, won an Iowa straw poll. Pawlenty ended his campaign, and Perry, the Texas governor with tea party leanings, jumped in.
The grass-roots, decentralized tea party movement sprung to life in 2009 to oppose Obama's health care initiative, then swung its focus to cutting taxes and spending. It helped Republicans win huge victories in 2010, and now it's playing an early and potent role in the GOP presidential process.
As the movement asserts its clout, however, its popularity has dropped.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn in Davenport, White House correspondent Ben Feller and Charles Babington in Washington contributed to this report.