ASHEVILLE, North Carolina (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama sought on Monday to turn up the heat on Republicans for blocking his jobs bill in Congress as he began a campaign-style bus tour across states vital to his 2012 re-election chances.
Hitting the road again, this time in the swing states of North Carolina and Virginia, Obama attempted to rally public support pressuring U.S. lawmakers to pass at least parts of his $447 billion (283.8 billion pound) jobs package, even after the plan as a whole was defeated last week.
“We’re going to give members of Congress another chance to step up to the plate and do the right thing,” Obama told a cheering crowd at the airport in Asheville, North Carolina, the starting point for his three-day trek in a black armoured bus.
As Senate Democrats prepared to force a vote this week on one of Obama’s jobs proposals, which would give states money to employ teachers, the president mocked the Republicans who had blocked his original bill.
“Maybe they just couldn’t understand the whole all at once. So we’re going to break it up into bite-size pieces so they can take a thoughtful approach to this legislation,” he said.
Obama’s strategy is to force Republicans to accept his proposals or be painted as obstructionists getting in the way of economic recovery as campaigning for the November 2012 presidential and congressional elections heats up.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that the Republicans opposing Obama’s jobs plan had not put forward a proposal of their own that would have a meaningful economic or hiring impact in the next 12 to 18 months.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, said the ideas his party proposed last week to require a balanced budget, promote foreign trade and push offshore energy exploration would have a more significant effect than Obama’s short-term stimulus.
“The Republican plan is focussed on the type of reforms that will provide a lasting environment for private sector job creation, rather than a fleeting sugar high,” Buck said, also questioning why Obama was on the road rather than speaking with lawmakers in Washington to find areas of agreement.
“This bus tour looks a lot like the kind of political game the president has said the American people are tired of,” he said.
Republicans say Obama’s jobs package was laden with wasteful spending and counterproductive tax hikes for wealthier Americans who tend to be entrepreneurs and job creators.
Their disagreement has extended the deadlock that brought the United States to the edge of sovereign default in August when Democrats and Republicans failed to agree on deficit cuts as part of a deal to raise the U.S. debt ceiling.
It looks unlikely that any major steps to spur hiring will be passed before the 2012 election, when Obama will be judged for his economic stewardship.
In Asheville, the president said partisan considerations needed to be set aside for the economy’s sake.
“We can’t do nothing. Too many folks are hurting out there to do nothing,” he said.
The White House billed Obama’s trip — his second bus tour through small-town America since he visited the rural Midwest in August — as a chance to reconnect with ordinary citizens.
His itinerary takes in two traditionally conservative states he won in 2008 but which polls show he is in danger of losing in his bid for a second term. But the White House said Obama’s trip was official business with all costs covered by taxpayers, not from his campaign coffers.
Waving people lined the streets in front of gas stations, fast-food restaurants and shopping malls as Obama’s bus, with dark-tinted windows and red and blue flashing lights, led a long motorcade across the green, rolling hills.
The bus tour takes place well over a year before the election during a period when incumbent presidents generally are spending their campaign time raising money.
Obama’s focus on retail politicking at this stage suggests he realizes he has a tough road in 2012 and has to start early to hammer home his message that Republicans are refusing to join with him in finding ways to fix the U.S. economy.
At a Southern barbecue restaurant where he stopped for lunch, diners expressed mixed views of the Democrat’s record.
“This isn’t ‘Obama Country’ but I voted for him once and I’ll vote for him again,” said Howard Ward, 76, a retired textile manager. “He’s doing the best he can with jobs. But it’s going to be very close in this state in 2012.”
An elderly woman sitting nearby shook her head as she ate a barbecue chicken sandwich. “He hasn’t done anything to fix the economy. He doesn’t deserve a second chance,” she said.
Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, Steve Holland and Laura MacInnis; Editing by Will Dunham