WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama launches a political counteroffensive this week, weighed down by a stunted economy, wilting support among some of his most ardent backers, and a daily bashing from the slew of Republicans campaigning for his job.
"We've still got a long way to go to get to where we need to be. We didn't get into this mess overnight, and it's going to take time to get out of it," the president told the country over the weekend, all but pleading for people to stick with him.
A deeply unsettled political landscape, with voters in a fiercely anti-incumbent mood, is framing the 2012 presidential race 15 months before Americans decide whether to give Obama a second term or hand power to the Republicans. Trying to ride out what seems to be an unrelenting storm of economic anxiety, people in the United States increasingly are voicing disgust with most all of the men and women, Obama included, they sent to Washington to govern them.
With his approval numbers sliding, the Democratic president will try to ease their worries and sustain his resurrected fighting spirit when he sets off Monday on a bus tour of Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. The trip is timed to dilute the GOP buzz emanating from the Midwest after Republicans gathered in Iowa over the weekend for a first test of the party's White House candidates. The state holds the nation's first nominating test in the long road toward choosing Obama's opponent.
"You have just sent a message that Barack Obama will be a one-term president," Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann told elated supporters minutes after winning Saturday's Iowa straw poll, essentially a fundraising event that also tests a candidate's organizational and financial strength. She spent heavily and traveled throughout the state where she was born, casting herself as the evangelical Christian voice of the deeply conservative small-government, low-tax tea party wing of the GOP.
Bachmann pulled in 4,823 votes, or 29 percent of those cast, edging out Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who drew 4,671 votes, or 28 percent. But while Democrats probably rejoiced that Bachmann's ultraconservative voice gained strength among Republican contenders, the contest to challenge Obama in November 2012 grew even more jumbled. While the voting was under way in Ames, Iowa, Republicans also had to keep an eye on South Carolina, where Texas Gov. Rick Perry made a cleverly timed entrance into the race.
Like Bachmann and all the other candidates, Perry ravaged Obama. He said the president was presiding over an "economic disaster," in a declaration that stole some of Bachmann's political thunder and undercut the front-runner status of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who didn't compete in the Iowa test vote. Perry clearly cast a broad shadow across the Republican contest.
Obama, expecting the political shelling he would take, fired pre-emptively in his weekly radio and Internet address to the nation on Saturday. He told listeners that it was the Republicans running for president and serving in Congress who were at work crushing voters' hopes and dreams.
The question for Obama and his backers remains: Will he sustain the counterattack? Of late, he's been seen by even his most staunch supporters as too ready to retreat from critical ground when confronted by intransigent Republicans.
Polls show voters hold both parties to blame for the stunted economic recovery, an unseemly political fight over raising the limit on U.S. borrowing, an anemic deal to cut the government deficit, the subsequent and unprecedented downgrade of the country's credit rating, wild stock market gyrations and an unemployment rate stuck above 9 percent.
In the face of that reality, Obama is tacking to put some wind in his re-election sails, apparently convinced that he can gather speed by turning up the attack on Congress.
"You've got a right to be frustrated," the president said in his weekly address. "I am. Because you deserve better. I don't think it's too much for you to expect that the people you send to this town start delivering."
He chastised Republicans for brinksmanship, saying "some in Congress would rather see their opponents lose than see America win."
That's an assessment that has some validity, particularly among the new class of House Republicans who have used their outsized legislative power to stymie Obama at every turn since their election last November.
Working in Obama's favor is a Republican Party still struggling to find a presidential candidate who lights a fire with voters. Questions remain about the appeal of Bachmann and Paul beyond, respectively, the more conservative and libertarian wings of the party.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, looking for a strong showing in Iowa to boost his struggling candidacy, ended a distant third with 2,293 votes, or 14 percent. On Sunday, he quit the race.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP's 2008 vice presidential nominee, wasn't on the ballot and isn't a candidate yet. But she showed up at the Iowa State Fair a day before the vote, drawing huge crowds and saying she hadn't ruled out running.
Like Bachmann and Perry, Palin is a tea party favorite, but her coyness about joining the race could hurt her chances should she finally declare.
While Obama's bus tour is meant, in part, to blunt the Iowa Republican festivities, it will have to compete for attention as the country digests Perry's rhetorical assault on Obama's presidency.
Perry, a former Democrat and the nation's longest-serving governor, told his appreciative audience that Obama's government had "an insatiable desire to spend our children's inheritance." He accused Obama of presiding over an "economic disaster" that has been "downgrading our hope for a better future."
"I'll work every day to try to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your lives as I can," Perry said, clearly bowing to his tea party backing. Specifics for turning his promises into realities were absent.
By entering the race on the same day as the Iowa voting, Perry angered some Republicans but saved some campaign cash and energy.
If nothing else, voters won't be able to ignore the fact that Perry's speaking style and swagger are eerily reminiscent of another Texas governor who made the transition to the national stage: President George W. Bush.
With his solid credentials on social as well as economic issues, Perry is an immediate threat to Bachmann, Romney and every other GOP candidate.
Romney did not participate in the Iowa poll, which he won four years ago before dropping out of the race when he failed to catch fire against eventual nominee John McCain. Romney did join all the announced candidates Thursday at an Iowa debate.
But it was his pre-debate visit to the Iowa State Fair that produced a political gift to the Democrats.
Responding to a heckler who challenged him on tax policies that benefit big business, he blurted out that "corporations are people, my friend." The Democratic National Committee quickly used video of that remark in pre-straw poll television ads in Des Moines, the state capital. It was the kind of business-friendly Republican applause line that could haunt him with undecided voters and disaffected Democrats.
Obama and the other GOP hopefuls now face daily scrutiny as well as they try to avoid for the same kind of misstep. That's a nearly impossible task in the long, arduous and expensive path toward the White House.