JOHN YDSTIE, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie. President Obama leaves tomorrow morning for a three-day Midwestern bus tour to promote his economic agenda. He'll be trying to make up for time lost while tough partisan squabbles kept him in Washington and while Republican presidential contenders grabbed the spotlight in Iowa. In a few moments, we'll ask two of the nation's top economists how the Obama administration can boost employment and kick-start economy. First, we turn to NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro for a look ahead at Mr. Obama's Western trip. Ari, give us a rundown for what's in store for the president in the next few days.
ARI SHAPIRO: Well, he's visiting three states in three days: Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, and its small towns in these states. So, he's going to be in places like Cannon Falls, Minnesota, Decorah, Iowa, Alpha, Illinois. His focus is the economy and more specifically on how the economy has impacted these rural communities. He'll do a few town hall meetings and hold what the White House calls a rural economic forum. And while it's not on the schedule, I think it's safe to say you can expect him eating cherry pie, kissing babies and doing other things that make for reelection campaign-ready photographs.
YDSTIE: So, is this trip more about politics or the economy?
SHAPIRO: You know, it's impossible to separate the two. The president needs to get his economic message out to voters, especially given how bad the economy is and especially in swing states, like the ones that he's visiting on this trip. Iowa in particular has been blanketed with Republican presidential candidates for the last week between the Republican presidential debate and the Ames straw poll. The president really needs to get into that mix, and he also needs to distance himself from of the disgust that Americans feel with Washington right now, maybe even identifying himself with some of that disgust, sympathize with the Americans who are so annoyed at the partisan gridlock. Here's what the president said on Thursday at a manufacturing plant in Holland, Michigan, explaining why he did not call Congress back from the August recess.
President BARACK OBAMA: The last thing we need is Congress spending more time arguing in D.C.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
OBAMA: What I figure is, they need to spend more time out here listening to you and hear how fed up you are. That's why I'm here. That's why I'll be traveling to a lot of communities like this one over the next week.
YDSTIE: So, Ari, tell us about the focus on rural America specifically. What are the issues of local interest and what will the president be talking about?
SHAPIRO: Well, the administration released a report covering some of this territory on Friday. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said rural America produces most of America's food, a lot of its energy, a lot of its water. Almost half of America's service members in the military come from rural communities. It's a population that's getting older, there tends to be higher unemployment than the rest of the country, and the administration is trying to improve education, health care, other issues that's hit these communities in unique ways. For example, take broadband. In big cities, it's not such a big deal, but the White House says in rural areas having access to broadband can mean that a small business owner will have access to markets that will allow them to sell their goods to a much larger number of people.
YDSTIE: So, is this rural focus new for the president.
SHAPIRO: You know, I asked my colleague, Howard Berkes, who covers rural issues for NPR, about this, and he pointed out that before the 2008 Iowa caucuses, Mr. Obama promised to hold a rural policy summit in Iowa during his first 100 days in office. Well, that didn't happen but it's going to happen on this trip. And in the last few months, as the reelection campaign has kicked in, we've generally seen a much greater on rural issues from this White House. There's a White House Rural Council now, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack is actively reaching out to news organizations offering interviews on rural issues. There's the forum next week in Iowa, and an organizer of a group called Rural Votes is back in touch with reporters. That group actively supported Mr. Obama in the last election. So, while it might not be fair to say that this is a new focus for the administration, it has certainly become a much greater focus as the reelection campaign ramps up. And the fact is, whittling down the big Republican majorities in rural areas from past presidential elections is one important way that President Obama can hope to win next year.
YDSTIE: So, if politics and economics are so closely connected, can we expect to hear anything about new economic policy or jobs on this trip?
SHAPIRO: Well, the president has said he plans to roll out new ideas to improve the economy and create jobs in the coming weeks, and I don't think anybody would be at all some of those new ideas came out over the next few days on this bus tour.
YDSTIE: NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. Thanks, Ari.
SHAPIRO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.