Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

PEOSTA, Ia. – Using his Iowa stops on a three-day bus tour of the Midwest, President Barack Obama said Tuesday he is boosting efforts to help small businesses in rural America, but warned that the “come-back” from recession cannot start in Washington and that an intense partisan divide in the Capital is stalling progress.

“There are two things that I know for sure,” he said to about 150 Peosta area residents at Northeastern Community College who were who were invited for a White House Rural Economic Forum.  “America is going to come back from this recession stronger than before.  I’m also convinced that this come back isn’t going to be driven by Washington.”

Photo by Mike Anderson

In brief remarks just before the audience was to break out into small groups to discuss answers to problems affecting the rural economy, Obama said, “Times are tough, but our people are tough. We know how to make it through a hard season. How to look out for each other, facing droughts, tornados, disasters, looking out for each other till we reach a brighter day.

“That kind of honor, self-discipline, and integrity, those are the values we associate with small towns like this one,” he said. “Those are the values that built America.”

The tour is perhaps the first rumbling of his reelection campaign machine. His visits to Iowa follow closely on the heels of the Iowa Republican Party’s Ames straw poll, which brought U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann a razor-thin victory over second place finisher, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, in the Iowa caucus campaign. Also, Texas Gov. Rick Perry joined the Republican campaign for the presidential nomination.

The tour also comes after a series of setbacks on the country’s domestic agenda — including a ruling against a key portion his health care plan in federal appeals court in Atlanta and the historic downgrade of the U.S.’s credit rating by Standard and Poor’s.

Obama said his administration is increasing its efforts to help rural residents to find work. Earlier in the day, the administration announced the approval of Iowa’s State Small Business Credit Initiative application. The funds are set aside to help create new jobs and spur more than $132 million in small-business lending. The program is part of the Small Business Jobs Act Obama signed into law last fall.

With that backdrop, Obama used his stop in Peosta to connect with grassroots America on a one-to-one basis that included his personal appearance at some of the small group work sessions. His audience was composed of local businessmen, farmers, and energy entrepreneurs and others.

Each focus group participant had received an emailed request from the Obama administration in advance of the event this Tuesday. The forum is a function of the White House Rural Council, a federal program created by Obama on June 9, 2011. The five different focus groups discussed a variety of issues related to the rural economy, ranging from alternative energies to the importance of community colleges in small towns like Peosta.

He used his pre-focus group remarks to call attention to his administration’s efforts to put some spark into the economy and to a list of executive and legislative initiatives ranging from trade deals to spur foreign trade and payroll tax cuts to put “an extra $1,000 in the pockets of typical American families.”

He also used the forum to rail against the intense partisanship that has divided Congress and came close recently to putting the government in default on its financial obligations in a dispute over whether to raise the debt ceiling.

Conservative Republicans, particularly members of the Tea Party faction, resisted raising the debt ceiling earlier this month, until a day before the government would have run out of money to pay its obligation. Opponents of the raising the debt ceiling argued that the administration needed to reduce spending to cut the deficit. They would not relent in their opposition to Obama’s plan to reduce the deficit by a combination cutting spending and raising more tax revenue.

That dispute was cited by Standard and Poor’s officials as part of the reason it lowered government’s credit rating.

“The only thing holding us back is our politics,” Obama said, referring to the bipartisan battles. In apparent reference to that and other policy standoffs between Democrats and Republicans, Obama said, “The only thing that’s preventing us from passing the bills I just mentioned is the refusal of a faction in Congress to put country ahead of party.

Obama flag
Photo by Mike Anderson

“That has to stop,” he said. “Our economy cannot afford it.”

“I need your help sending a message to Congress that it’s time to put the politics aside and get something done.”

Shortly after his remarks the audience broke up into small groups for the discussions.

Charlotte Halverson, the agricultural and occupational health nurse at the community college, participated in a group overseen by Tom O’Brien, a member of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s staff. The president commandeered her office for his visit, and though she didn’t get to meet him in person, she left a sheet of paper on her desk requesting an autograph.

“It’s delightful to see the president get out of Washington and see him talk to real Americans, real rural Americans,” Halverson said, “I was excited about it beforehand. I am ecstatic about it now. I can’t wait to get out there and do something.”

The crowd gathered in the large steel industrial building on the campus of the Northeastern Iowa Community College consisted of men and women from all over the country. Dennis Shields, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, was among them.

“We need good paying jobs,” he said. “We need people going to work. And that’s what he’s talking about. I’d be surprised if you don’t see more fire from him in the coming months.”

After Tuesday’s appearances, the economic bus tour is scheduled for appearances in Atkinson and Alpha, Ill., on Wednesday before the president returns to Washington.

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