WASHINGTON — Trading Washington's hot house for states critical to his re-election prospects, President Barack Obama is headed to the Midwest after a summer of discontent over a protracted debt showdown with Republicans and the downgrade in the nation's credit rating.
Obama's bus tour, his first as president, begins Monday and will take him to prairie communities in Minnesota and through Iowa and Illinois, with stops in the farmland and rural towns that launched his first White House bid.
The former Illinois senator is expected to tell audiences that he agrees with their frustrations about a dysfunctional federal government.
"What we've seen in Washington the last few months has been the worst kind of partisanship, the worst kind of gridlock — and that gridlock has undermined public confidence and impeded our efforts to take the steps we need for our economy," Obama said Thursday in Michigan. "It's made things worse instead of better."
Obama won a clean sweep in 2008 of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan, a region that has supported Democratic presidential candidates since 2000, except for President George W. Bush's narrow victory in Iowa in 2004.
But Obama's standing in these states, like elsewhere, has grown precarious as the economy has slumped.
Republican governors are now in charge in three of those five states and Obama's approval rating, as measured by Gallup, is hovering around 50 percent in most of the region.
"We got a president who got a decrease in the credit rating of our nation, and that's because our president simply doesn't understand how to lead and how to grow an economy," Republican hopeful Mitt Romney said in Thursday's Iowa debate.
Romney and his GOP rivals blamed Obama for the growth of the federal deficit and the credit downgrade by Standard and Poor's, the first in the nation's history.
The GOP race intensified with Texas Gov. Rick Perry's entry Saturday. When Obama arrives at a town hall meeting in Decorah, Iowa, on Monday afternoon, Perry intends to meet with voters in eastern Iowa, about 100 miles away.
Nationally, Obama's approval rating is comparable to President Ronald Reagan's ratings in August 1983. But recent Gallup polls found that Obama's approval rating was hovering between 44 percent and 49 percent in 10 states closely watched by his political advisers. Those states include Iowa, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida.
Obama's standing with independents, who helped him win in traditionally Republican states such as Indiana and North Carolina, has fallen, too.
"The country is in an unbelievably angry mood," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.
Most presidents like to get away from the nations' capital, and this excursion couldn't come at a better time.
As a candidate, Obama said he would tame Washington's gridlock. Yet it was political paralysis that scuttled his quest for a "grand bargain" with congressional Republicans on increasing the country's borrowing limit and forced him to agree to smaller spending cuts without higher taxes on the rich, as he demanded.
Days later, Standard & Poor's downgraded the U.S. credit rating and stocks on Wall Street plummeted, undermining confidence in an economic turnaround. The Federal Reserve said Tuesday that economic growth had been "considerably slower" than expected this year and outlined a glum forecast.
Obama will have a tough sales job on the road. Unemployment is high, foreclosures are rampant and Wall Street is jittery.
While considered official White House travel, the bus tour will put Obama in campaign-like settings with small-business owners and workers in rural areas.
If 2008 was about hope and change, 2012 may be about hard-knuckle politics. Behind the scenes, Obama advisers are planning to draw sharp contrasts with some of the leading Republicans.
Yet Obama also finds himself under pressure from the left to generate jobs and raise taxes on the wealthy.
Most Democrats, said MoveOn.org's Justin Ruben, "have not been offering a clear prescription for actually getting the economy moving."
Obama told workers in Michigan that he plans to roll out more economic plans "that will help businesses hire and put people back to work." That's an approach Democrats hope will set the tone for next year's election in the Midwest and beyond.