WASHINGTON President Barack Obama hits the road on Monday for a Midwestern bus tour that he hopes will leave doubts over his leadership behind in Washington.
But the three-day trip through Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois -- three states seen as vital to his 2012 re-election campaign -- could put him in front of voters who, polls show, are furious about political gridlock in the U.S. capital.
Iowa, which launched Obama's historic journey to the White House in 2008, has recently been playing host to Republican presidential hopefuls who have aggressively slammed his record as they criss-cross the state.
The White House says the president is on listening tour to hear from Americans about the economy and to talk about how to boost jobs and hiring. There are no plans for a major policy speech to roll out new initiatives for growth.
The unmistakable campaign style of the trip will help Obama, a Democrat, test his organization and grassroots support as the Republican presidential field begins to take shape.
Texas Governor Rick Perry entered the race for the Republican nomination on Saturday and is expected to join Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann as one of the stronger Republican candidates. Bachmann won an Iowa straw poll on Saturday in the first big test for the Republican candidates.
White House communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said Iowa had a special connection for Obama and told reporters that the U.S. leader was excited to be able to finally escape from Washington.
His departure follows a brutal period of bad news that dented confidence in his leadership, particularly after a bitter debate over raising the U.S. debt limit that exposed deep partisanship bordering on government dysfunction.
A leading ratings agency has downgraded the nation's AAA credit rating and fears of another U.S. recession have grown, adding to investor concerns about Europe's ongoing debt crisis. Stock markets whipsawed over the past week, producing one of the most volatile periods of Obama's presidency.
Polls show many Americans think the country is on the wrong track and are deeply anxious about their future, amid sluggish economic growth and an unemployment rate that remains above 9 percent.
Obama's approval ratings have taken a hit but he remains more popular than U.S. lawmakers, who prompted public anger for pushing the country to the brink of default during the debt limit negotiations.
"All people see out of Washington is conflict and dysfunction," said Ryan McConaghy, director of economic policy at Third Way, a non-partisan thinktank in Washington.
"For the president to go out and really talk about why his agenda is going to help people, it is going to be a lot easier for him to do that, and a lot more effective for him to do that in their communities," McConaghy said.
Obama speaks at a townhall meeting in Cannon Falls, Minnesota on Monday before heading to Decorah, Iowa.
He will hold a rural economic forum in Peosta, Iowa, on Tuesday, and on Wednesday he will hold town hall meetings in Atkinson and Alpha, Illinois before returning to Washington.
The president gave a hint of the kind of things he will say on his trip during a weekly radio address on Saturday, playing on public frustration with the Congress.
"We can no longer let partisan brinksmanship get in our way -- the idea that making it through the next election is more important than making things right," the president said.
Obama is still holding well in all three states, with a Gallup tracking poll showing him with a 54 percent approval rating in his home state of Illinois, 52 percent in Minnesota and 49 percent in Iowa.
In 2008 he won all three states, which collectively make up 36 of the 270 Electoral College votes he will need to retain the White House next year.
In U.S. presidential elections, the winner of the popular vote does not necessarily win the presidency. That decision falls to the Electoral College, party faithful allotted to each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia based on their representation in the U.S. Congress or population.
(Reporting by Alister Bull; Editing by Paul Simao)