Obama in Alpha, Ill.
Obama in Atkinson, Ill.
ALPHA, Ill. -- During stops at two Illinois small towns on Wednesday while wrapping up a three-day bus tour, President Barack Obama hinted at the elements of a jobs package he will unveil in September, while hearing about the real world consequences of a dithering Congress.
"Since the debt ceiling fiasco in Washington, the phones have stopped," Obama was told by LuAnn Lavine, a real estate broker in Geneseo, in western Illinois' Henry County. Obama told her it will take more than a year for the housing market to recover.
Obama came home to Illinois for the final two town hall sessions of a campaign-style rural Midwest bus trip that took him through Iowa and Minnesota.
Standing in front of tall stalks of corn during a session at the Country Corner Farm Market in this town of 671, and earlier, at Hyffels Hybrids, a corn seed company in Atkinson, population 1,100, Obama heard from people anxious about the economy, taxes, regulations and the housing/mortgage markets.
Seeming to relish visiting turf he has not seen since he was an Illinois senator, Obama made unscheduled side trips to Galesburg High School and to the Whiteside County Fair in Morrison. Obama's Illinois homecoming ended in Peoria on Wednesday night, when Air Force One returned him to Washington.
Republicans have been pressing Obama for specifics on how he would create jobs and reduce the deficit, as a "supercommittee" from both congressional chambers faces a November deadline to make massive cuts or find more revenues. The panel is the byproduct of a last-minute deal earlier this month to raise the debt ceiling and avert default.
Obama suggested that he will try again for a comprehensive package, even as Republicans, who control the House, have pressure from its Tea Party faction -- including 2012 GOP presidential contenders -- to allow for no new revenues, no matter how much is cut.
"When Congress gets back in September, my basic argument to them is this: We should not have to choose between getting our fiscal house in order and jobs and growth. We can't afford to do just one or the other. We got to do both," Obama said in Atkinson, against a backdrop of sacks of corn seeds and pallets at Wyffels large production facility.
Continuing the payroll tax cut -- a one-year break for everyone with a paycheck -- seems high on the Obama agenda, as he has mentioned it at almost every stop these past three days.
"There is no reason why we should not extend a payroll tax cut that put $1,000 into the pockets of every single family out there. That means they've got more money to spend, that means businesses have more customers, that means the economy grows and more people get hired. And we could renew it right now to give businesses certainty that they're going to have customers, not just this year but next year as well," Obama said.
Obama also seemed poised to ask Congress for more infrastructure projects; $1.3 million from his recovery grant paid for a new fire station under construction in Atkinson, a few blocks from where he spoke.
"There's no reason why we shouldn't put Americans back to work all across the country rebuilding America," Obama said.
"All those folks who got laid off from construction because the economy went south or the housing bubble burst, they're dying for work. Contractors are willing to come in under budget and on time. And interest rates are low, so we could finance right now the rebuilding of infrastructure all across America that drove not only unemployment in the construction industry down, but drove unemployment down across the board."
One area where Obama may find common ground with Republicans is on pending free trade deals, as Obama made a pitch for U.S. products.
"We should be passing trade deals right now because, look, the Koreans, they can sell Kias and Hyundais here in the United States; I think that's great. I want to be selling Fords and Chryslers and Chevys in Korea. And I want products all across the world stamped with three words 'Made in America.' That's something that we could be doing right now."
In Atkinson, Lavine, the owner of a RE/MAX agency, told Obama, "Every week I sit around the kitchen table of families that are here today and I listen to the stories of a lost job, upside down in their house."
She saw a turnaround in May and June. "My phone was ringing. I was busier than all get-out." However, "since the debt ceiling fiasco in Washington, the phones have stopped," even through interest rates are at a record low.
Obama in reply said his administration was pushing banks to do loan modifications; Lavine disagreed.
"The loan modification system has been a nightmare. Short sales are a nightmare. And the lenders are so tight and you have to be so perfect, and it's not a perfect world," she said.
Obama did not engage her on specifics. "Now, I can't excuse the self-inflicted wound that was that whole debt debate. It shouldn't have happened the way it did. We shouldn't have gotten that close to the brink. It was inexcusable."