DECORAH, Iowa — Hitting back against an emboldened GOP, President Barack Obama launched a rare direct attack Monday on the Republican presidential field, criticizing his potential 2012 rivals for their blanket opposition to any deficit-cutting compromise involving new taxes.
"That's just not common sense," Obama told the crowd at a town hall-style meeting in Cannon Falls, Minn., as he kicked off a three-day bus tour through Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.
"You've got to be willing to compromise to move the country forward," the president said later in the day as he delivered the same message at a town hall in Decorah, Iowa.
At the same time Obama was forced to defend his own record as Iowa voters asked him about all the compromises he's made with the GOP.
"I make no apologies for being reasonable," Obama declared as he stood in front of a cheery red barn, surrounded by bales of hay.
The president recalled a moment in last week's GOP presidential debate when all eight of the candidates said they would refuse to support a deal with tax increases, even if tax revenues were outweighed 10-to-1 by spending cuts.
Obama didn't mention any of the candidates by name, and prefaced the remark by saying, "I know it's not election season yet."
But his comment underscored that election season is indeed under way. The bus tour, although an official White House event rather than a campaign swing, is taking Obama through three states he won in 2008 but where he now needs to shore up his standing. It's giving him a chance to return to the grassroots campaigning that helped propel him to the White House, and shed his jacket and tie to mix it up with voters in coffee shops and lunch joints far from the Beltway – as he did in three unscheduled stops Monday, including one in a tree-lined Minnesota town where he was swarmed by enthusiastic kids.
The president is traveling in an imposing new $1.1 million bus, outfitted with tinted windows and flashing lights, that the Secret Service purchased.
In Iowa, Obama returned to a state that handed him a key victory over Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton in their nomination fight but where Republicans have now been blanketing the state in preparation for its first-in-the-nation caucuses, attacking the president at every turn. The bus tour came on the heels of Rep. Michele Bachmann's weekend victory in the Iowa Straw Poll and Texas Gov. Rick Perry's contest-rattling entrance into the race.
It also came after the president spent much of the summer holed up in the nation's capital enmeshed in bitter, partisan negotiations on the debt crisis that cratered his approval ratings and those of Congress amid a faltering economy and high unemployment.
The president got a rosy reception from his Minnesota audience, but Iowa voters were a tougher crowd, demanding to know why he'd compromised on principles important to Democrats, and asking to hear his plans for dealing with intransigent Republicans.
The president responded by pledging to present a specific jobs plan to Congress when lawmakers return from their summer recess in September. "And if they don't get it done, then we'll be running against a Congress that's not doing anything for the American people and the choice will be very stark and very clear," the president said.
At both town hall meetings, Obama used questions on his health care bill to take hard shots at Mitt Romney, the GOP front-runner who has had to defend implementing a health care plan while governor of Massachusetts that's similar to the federal version.
"You've got a governor who's running for president right now who instituted the exact same thing in Massachusetts," Obama said, referring to a central component of his law – the requirement for nearly everyone to carry health insurance.
"This used to be a Republican idea," Obama said. "It's like suddenly they got amnesia."
The so-called individual mandate in Obama's health care law was struck down by a federal appeals court last week, but Obama expressed confidence that the Supreme Court ultimately would uphold it if justices follow existing law and precedent.
One woman told Obama she was recovering from lung cancer and had slept in her truck for two days to ask him a question about Social Security, although the president missed the chance to sympathize with her about her health when he responded with a defense of Social Security.
The woman, Lois Dare, 53, expressed disappointment later that Obama didn't acknowledge her situation.
"I need help," she said. "I was hoping he would have said, `Let me take some information down and go back to the White House.'"
Obama began his remarks at the town halls with what's becoming a refrain: criticizing Congress, accusing lawmakers of putting politics ahead of the country and calling on voters to tell them to cut it out.
"You've got to send a message to Washington that it's time for the games to stop," Obama said.
Appearing in Cannon Falls, Minn., ahead of Obama's town hall, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus rallied a few dozen tea party members and College Republicans.
"We won't stand idly by while he uses our hard-earned tax dollars to spin his failure to put America back to work," Priebus said.
Between his events in Cannon Falls, Minn, and Decorah, Iowa, Obama logged miles of heartland highway in his bus, making several unannounced stops. First, it was lunch at the Old Market Deli in Cannon Falls with five Minnesota military veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Then it was coffee at the Coffee Mill in Zumbrota, Minn., where one patron, Wayne Gadient from Goodhue, Minn., had some encouraging words for the president: "I think he's doing the best he can do with what he has to work with."
And finally the president stopped stop in Chatfield, Minn., pulling up before a colorful array of children from the Valleyland summer camp who stood on the sidewalk in the tree lined town. They held homemade signs: "we (heart) Obama" and "Honk if you're the president."
On Tuesday the president holds what the White House is billing as a "rural economic forum" in Peosta, Iowa, near the Illinois border, where he'll be joined by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, to announce several initiatives for rural areas. He'll wrap up Wednesday with town halls in Atkinson in northwestern Illinois, and then in nearby Alpha, Ill., before returning to Washington.
On Thursday he flies with his family to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts for his annual summer vacation.
Associated Press writers Brian Bakst in Cannon Falls, Minn., and Erica Werner, Ben Feller and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.