MILLERS CREEK, North Carolina (Reuters) - President Barack Obama sought on Monday to turn up the heat on Republicans for blocking his jobs bill as he started a campaign-style bus tour across states vital to his 2012 re-election chances.
Hitting the road again, this time in North Carolina and Virginia, Obama struck a populist tone and argued that Congress should pass at least parts of his $447 billion jobs package that was defeated as a whole 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 armored 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.
The president’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.
“I need you to give Congress a piece of your mind,” he told about 2,000 supporters packed into a high school gymnasium in Millers Creek, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains.
“Tell them what’s at stake here. There are too many of our fellow Americans hurting and you can’t stand by and do nothing. Now is the time to act,” he said.
Republicans saw Obama’s jobs package as laden with wasteful spending and counter-productive 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.
That impasse makes it unlikely that any major steps to spur hiring will be passed before the 2012 election, when Obama will be judged for his economic stewardship.
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 spans 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. North Carolina is also site of the Democratic presidential convention next summer.
But the White House said the bus tour was official business with all costs covered by taxpayers, not from Obama’s campaign coffers.
Onlookers 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.
Some cheered and snapped photos with their cellphones but a few turned their thumbs down as the string of vehicles passed, and others held protest signs including one reading: “No more massive government spending programs. They don’t work.”
The bus tour is taking 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.
In Millers Creek, Obama derided the jobs plan Republicans presented last week as an attempt to roll back environmental standards and Wall Street regulations without having the wealthy pay any more taxes to help those struggling.
But Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, said the Republican ideas that would require a balanced budget, promote foreign trade and push offshore energy exploration would have a more meaningful jobs impact than the “sugar high” of Obama’s recommended stimulus.
Buck also questioned why Obama was on the road and not working with lawmakers to find compromise. “This bus tour looks a lot like the kind of political game the president has said the American people are tired of,” he said.
At a Southern barbecue restaurant where Obama 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 Laura MacInnis, Thomas Ferraro and Steve Holland; Editing by Will Dunham and Cynthia Osterman