CANNON FALLS, Minn. -- President Barack Obama headed into Republican-leaning territory Monday for what Washington observers called his first re-election campaign stop, asking 500 Minnesotans in a tranquil park along a quiet stream to tell their GOP representatives to compromise.
The Democratic president basically said that if Republicans would see things his way, Washington would run much smoother.
"What is needed is action on the part of Congress, a willingness to put the partisan games aside and say, 'We're going to do what's right for the country, not what we think is going to score some political points for the next election,'" he said.
Obama used "politics" and "Republicans" interchangeably when talking about problems in Washington.
While White House officials said the trip was not campaign-related, Obama certainly was in campaign mode.
"We just went through this debacle with the debt ceiling -- an entirely self-inflicted wound," Obama said during a 15-minute speech in Hannah's Bend Park. "It wasn't something that was necessary. We had put forward a plan that would have stabilized our debt and our deficits for years to come. But because we've got a politics in which some folks in Congress -- not the folks who are here -- but 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."
Wearing a white shirt with rolled up sleeves, and no tie, Obama said that the national debt problem is not that difficult to solve: "It's not that complicated, but it does require everybody being willing to make some compromises."
Sounding like a candidate, the president took credit for economic improvements.
"We've been able to reverse the recession," Obama proclaimed. "We've added over 2 million jobs in the private sector over the last 17 months."
To make more improvements, he said, Congress should renew a payroll tax cut already in place, spend money on building public infrastructure and give tax credits to companies that hire military veterans.
The Cannon Falls stop was the first on a three-state tour in new gleaming black high-security buses. After Cannon Falls, where Obama spoke in a park along the Cannon River, he held a similar town hall event in Decorah, Iowa.
Today, he is to speak at an eastern Iowa rural economic development forum where White House officials say he will make a significant announcement for rural America.
On Wednesday, he will finish his tour in Illinois before a planned 10-day vacation.
While the tour was touted as a rural economic tour, much of what Obama talked about in his opening remarks were of a more general nature. He also answered questions for about 45 minutes and touched on rural issues during that time.
While in Minnesota, Obama stopped at a Zumbrota restaurant and a Chatfield school and ate lunch in Cannon Falls with veterans.
Lunch was at the Old Market Deli in Cannon Falls, where Obama ate a turkey sandwich and drank iced tea. During his speech, Obama pointed out that rural America provides more military personnel than urban areas.
Cannon Falls is an area with a Republican congressman and Republicans representing them in the state Legislature.
Republicans were not happy with Obama's trip, calling it a campaign swing through critical election states.
Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton said talking about jobs and the economy is not enough.
"The president wants to talk about jobs, but that's all it is - talk," Sutton told the crowd.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also railed against stagnant job growth, along with the country's recently downgraded credit rating and the rollercoaster economy.
"We are in a battle of freedom," Priebus said. "A country that has to surrender its sovereignty to its bond holders can't guarantee prosperity or freedom to anybody."
In a statement, U.S. Rep. John Kline encouraged Obama to listen to what people in his district, which includes Cannon Falls, tell him.
"Like most Americans, they are tired of policies that keep us on the path to national bankruptcy, saddle American job creators and workers with tax hikes, and burden small businesses with regulations and red tape that exacerbate our economic downturn," the Republican congressman said.
Kline said that in Goodhue County, where the president visited, unemployment was at nearly 7 percent last month. He said Obama needs to look at ways to help businesses create jobs.
Many of those in the audience were thrilled that Obama answered their questions.
When he opened the meeting to questions, Obama first looked to 19-year-old Cecelia Findorff, who didn't expect she would get a chance to talk to him.
"I was in such shock," the Waconia, Minn., resident said after not only talking to him, but also shaking his hand.
Obama answered questions about health care reform, a key issue for Michelle Nord of Cannon Falls.
"We are an unemployed family that needs health care," Nord said. "It's a very scary thing."
And while much of the president's reform hasn't taken effect yet, pieces are already helping, some said.
"We're college students, and wouldn't be able to afford (health care) otherwise," said Tyler Ringeisen of Cannon Falls.
For Ben Rutter, a 19-year-old college student from Cannon Falls, getting to shake the president's hand a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience.
"It's pretty awesome to see him in your hometown," he said. "Especially your small hometown."
The Red Wing Republican Eagle staff contributed to this story. Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.