Nearly 1,000 US flags lined the streets Wednesday of Atkinson, Ill., more than there are people who actually live in the surrounding houses. This small rural community (pop. 972 in 2010) on the state’s far western edge was one of two final stops for President Obama’s three-day bus tour of the Midwest.
The trip had the appearance and feel of a campaign tour in the throes of election season even though the president refused to mention any of his potential Republican foes by name and composed his criticism in more general terms, choosing to complain of hostile politics rather than hostile individuals.
Mr. Obama, who has used the trip to sound out voters on the economy, talked Wednesday to mostly sympathetic audiences of wanting to ease patent restrictions for entrepreneurs, opening up jobs for rebuilding infrastructure, and helping US companies to export more goods overseas, but framed these actions as challenged by Washington politics.
“The fact is this,” Obama said. “All these things I just mentioned, historically they had bipartisan support.… There’s no reason not for us to act right now.”
In a question-and-answer session at a town hall meeting, an audience member asked him of the pledges by some Republicans to not raise taxes, to reduce the deficit, and to stand firm against gay and abortion rights. The moment allowed Obama, in rolled-up shirtsleeves and standing against tall banks of farm pallets in the warehouse of a corn seed company, to draw a line between his office and those circling to fill it.
“I took an oath. My pledge is to make sure every day I’m waking up looking out for you, the American people. So I don’t go around signing pledges,” he said.
Throughout this trip, which included town hall meetings in Minnesota and Iowa, Obama sought to strengthen his connection with rural communities, particularly in this part of Illinois, which is rich in soybean and corn crops. He delayed his morning appearance Wednesday by attending a nearby dairy cow competition. (“I went to a county fair today and they were showing some cows…. They all looked pretty good to me,” he said.)
Later that afternoon, he showed up unannounced to watch football practice at a high school in nearby Galesburg and deliver a pep talk to the team. While standing amid hay bales at an outdoor produce market in Alpha, Obama talked of promoting county fairs and fresh grown food, especially to urban areas.
“The county fair tradition is so important, not only because it’s an economic attraction for the community, but also because it brings the community together. It’s a focal point for the county, it reminds people what holds America together … [Food] just doesn’t show up in cellophane in a supermarket. Somebody’s growing that,” he said.
The themes resonated with some local farmers, including Tim Holmstrom, who voted for Sen. John McCain in 2008 and who say neither party has a lock on their vote the next time around.
“Too much right, too much left, we need more middle,” says Mr. Holmstrom, who operates a 2,000-acre family soybean farm outside Atkinson. Like Warren Buffet, whom Obama mentioned in both his speeches Wednesday, Holmstrom says he is open to paying higher taxes if it coincides with cuts in programs he finds unnecessary.
The stalemate between Democrats and Republicans in Congress over the best way to reduce the federal deficit and stimulate the economy became a common topic Wednesday, not just onstage but in the audience among people who pointed to the stalemate as the real culprit in the nation’s economic woes.
“They’re polarizing the United States too much rather than coming together and doing the best for us,” Holmstrom says.
A common complaint was that Republicans, and not the president, are preventing economic progress on the local front. There was little hope the tenor would change anytime soon.
“We need jobs. [Republicans] have been in there eight months. What jobs have they provided? They’re not going to support any jobs bill until October  because they want to see him defeated,” says Kay Jenkins of Galva.
Jobs were the primary concern of the many union laborers in both audiences Wednesday. Many say projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act helped stimulate construction jobs in the area, such as the new fire station in downtown Atkinson. However, they say they fear Congress will prevent a continuation of even that progress.
“The anger is mostly towards Congress here, but it does spill out,” says Ron Hickey, a union laborer from Ottawa. “They’re playing around too much when they should compromise and get to work.”
As for those flags lining the route of the president’s motorcade, they were the product of Larry Eckhardt of Little York, who shows up in the area and plants them roadside whenever the body of a local war veteran returns home. Mr. Eckhardt has been doing this for five years in his free time as a retiree following years working at International Harvester.
Sporting a red, white and blue shirt, he says he is cheered by both the love of his country and Obama’s tenacity (“this man here is phenomenal”), but agrees with most interviewed here that Congress is working against the nation’s best interest.
“I wouldn’t have [Obama’s] job for $2 million and the idiots want to condemn him,” he says. “It’s time to get serious about getting our problems straightened out.”
Protestors were minimal at both events, represented by just the occasional sign (“one term president”) along the road. The primary criticism came from far outside the region, from local and national Republican leaders who mocked Obama’s appearances as merely speechmaking to help improve his failing poll ratings.
In a teleconference with reporters Wednesday, the Republican National Committee chair, Reince Priebus, based in Racine, Wis., said the president failed “to put together a jobs plan.”
“We have no engagement from the president. But, what we do have are forensic winning speeches,” Mr. Priebus said.