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DECORAH, Iowa (Reuters) - President Barack Obama blasted Republicans for playing politics with the economy on Monday as he took to the road on a bus tour of the U.S. Midwest to focus on job growth and distance himself from anger toward Washington that could dent his 2012 re-election hopes.
The president's three-day trip, on a black bus with darkened windows and red and blue flashing lights, started in Minnesota, wound through backroads, rolling hills and farm communities to Iowa, and will end in Illinois.
Obama won all three states in the 2008 presidential election, although Iowa has recently played host to Republicans vying to battle him for the White House next year who have been criticizing his record as they crisscrossed the state.
The White House says Obama is on a listening tour to hear from Americans about the economy and talk about how to boost jobs and hiring. With U.S. unemployment mired at just above 9 percent, jobs are expected to be the central issue for voters in next year's presidential and congressional elections.
Obama said he would put forward a plan for economic growth when Congress returns from summer recess and challenged lawmakers to take action.
"I'll be putting forward when they come back in September a very specific plan to boost the economy, to create jobs and to control our deficit. And my attitude is -- get it done."
The tour also exposes the Democratic president to voters who, polls suggest, are furious about political gridlock in Washington as he begins serious campaigning for the November 2012 election.
Obama touted his job-growth agenda, which includes extending a payroll tax cut, finalizing free-trade pacts and promoting infrastructure projects to create construction jobs.
But Obama's hands are tied by a divided Congress, where Republicans control the House of Representatives and oppose any significant spending measures to stimulate growth.
Obama cited a column by Warren Buffett, in which the billionaire investor said the rich had been "coddled" by Congress, to argue for tax increases on the wealthy as well as spending cuts to close the deficit gap.
He cited a debate last week among Republicans vying for the party's presidential nomination in which all eight said they would not consider allowing even a $1 increase in government revenues -- through taxes or fees -- for every $10 in cuts.
"That's just not common sense," Obama said earlier in Minnesota.
Republicans slammed the trip as a taxpayer-funded "debt end" bus tour and hammered Obama over high unemployment, record national debt and the flagging economy.
Even some of Obama's fellow Democrats have expressed frustration that the president has not promoted plans to boost jobs growth more aggressively.
Obama was distracted for much of the summer by a divisive debate over the national debt and deficits that triggered a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating and undermined the public's faith in Washington.
"We just went through this debacle with the debt ceiling -- an entirely self-inflicted wound," Obama said. Because of politics, "some in Congress would rather see their opponents lose than America win, we ended up creating more uncertainty and more damage to an economy that was already weak."
A Gallup tracking poll completed on Saturday showed Obama with a 39 percent approval rating -- the lowest of his presidency -- but recent polls have shown far lower approval ratings for Congress.
Obama holds a rural economic forum in Peosta, Iowa, on Tuesday and town hall meetings in Atkinson and Alpha, Illinois, on Wednesday before returning to Washington.
The unmistakable campaign style of the trip will help the Democratic president test his organization and grassroots support as the field of Republican presidential candidates takes clearer shape.
Texas Governor Rick Perry entered the race for the Republican nomination on Saturday and immediately joined early front-runner Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann in the top tier of candidates in the field.
Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Writing by Tabassum Zakaria and Alister Bull; Editing by Vicki Allen and Todd Eastham