PEOSTA, Iowa (AP) — It's the biggest bullhorn in the political world.
The presidency and all the attention it commands are giving Barack Obama a chance to frame the national storyline this week, to try to put his imprint and spin on the economic and political wind shear that has been battering him.
His bus tour through three Midwestern states, complete with a blocks-long motorcade, is giving Obama the opportunity to attract the front-page headlines that a White House occupant can generate even with modest or rehashed proposals. A marvel of logistics, communications and transport that few organizations are equipped to execute, it's a welcome advantage as he fights back in a noxious political environment and in the face of weakening public approval.
Wrapping up a forum on rural economies at Northeast Iowa Community College on Tuesday, Obama sounded a sentimental note about the appeal of the road.
"As I was driving down those little towns in my big bus, we slowed down and I'm standing in the front and I'm waving," he said softly. "I'm seeing little kids with American flags, grandparents in their lawn chairs and folks outside a machine shop, and passing churches and cemeteries, corner stores and farms. I'm reminded about why I wanted to get into public service in the first place."
He's not the first and won't be the last president to employ all the trappings of power to seek a connection with the public. Presidents get credit in the hinterlands just for showing up, even from those who don't support them.
"I wish him well," said Jim Pape, a 78-year-old retiree in Guttenberg, Iowa, who was having breakfast at a café when Obama and his entourage swooped in. "He isn't all bad, but I'd prefer a different president."
That's praise from a man with this view of Washington: "They ought to plow it under and plant corn."
The Des Moines Register, an influential paper in the region, ran two photographs and an article on the front page following Obama's first day on the road. Nationally, the president also commanded prominent headlines and cable and network coverage.
Obama hit the road with slipping poll numbers, an up-and-down stock market, a downgrade of U.S. credit by Standard & Poor's and the hangover of a bitterly fought debt ceiling deal. And he still managed to step all over the GOP presidential field, just as the Republicans were commanding attention with their Iowa straw poll, a big debate and the entry of Texas Gov. Rick Perry into the race.
Obama's tour put all the trappings of power on full display. He boarded his Marine One helicopter on the White House lawn to fly to nearby Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. From there he flew on Air Force One to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. There he boarded his new $1.1 million Secret Service armored bus, joined a motorcade of up to 30 vehicles and rambled 260 miles through Minnesota and Iowa corn fields and small towns. The trip was to end Wednesday in western Illinois before the president and his family head off for a summer vacation.
The locales for two outdoor town halls Monday were selected by White House aides for maximum photographic appeal. The Cannon River provided the backdrop in Cannon Falls, Minn., and hay bales and a photogenic red barn, lit by late afternoon sun, framed his appearance in Decorah, Iowa.
Aides also chose road stops, arranging lunches and breakfasts with groups that help drive the president's message. On Monday he lunched with veterans at a delicatessen in Cannon Falls; on Tuesday he had breakfast with businessmen at a cafe in Guttenberg.
Local police provide security and shut down roads well in advance of the first sight of his imposingly dark, state-of-the art bus. Secret Service agents provide a protective circle at every moment.
News camera crews, photographers and reporters in his entourage run to capture every moment of public interaction, hoping for an impromptu moment. The press corps follows Obama on chartered buses and a plane — a luxury that none of the Republican candidates have yet.
There was enough of a campaign feel to the trip that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called on Obama to use his campaign's money to finance the trip. The White House dismissed such calls, arguing the trip fell within the demands of the president's job as chief executive.
Yet Obama has criticized congressional Republicans and GOP presidential candidates, directly and indirectly, on the tour. At the same time, he has had to defend himself before supporters who questioned his backbone.
He has promoted modest policies to spur the economy — far less ambitious than the 2009 stimulus package he pushed through Congress — while also calling for long-term fiscal discipline. The president pulled into this northeastern Iowa town with some modest announcements of federal support, include targeted loans to rural small businesses and recruitment of more doctors for small rural hospitals.
The White House said Tuesday that the Agriculture Department, the Energy Department and the Navy will jointly invest $510 million to produce "advanced" biofuels that can be used to power military and commercial transportation. The initiative was first announced by Obama in March as a part of a plan to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil.
Associated Press writers Ben Feller, Julie Pace and Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington and Philip Elliott, who was traveling in Iowa, contributed to this report.
- Barack Obama