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Obama kicks off Midwest bus tour with harsh words on the economy

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CANNON FALLS, Minn. —President Obama used some of his harshest words of the burgeoning 2012 presidential campaign Monday, criticizing the Republican candidates for their opposition to raising taxes as part of a deal to lower the nation’s debt.

Obama, who kicked off a three-day Midwest bus tour Monday focused on the economy, cited comments made by Republican presidential hopefuls at a GOP debate last week.

“I know it’s not election season yet, but I just have to mention the debate,” where Republicans said they would not increase taxes under virtually any circumstance, Obama said at a town hall. “Think about that. That’s just not common sense.”

Obama spoke in perfect weather beside an American flag at Lower Hannah’s Bend Park, a grassy plain in this one-traffic-light town of 4,000, about an hour’s drive south of St. Paul.

Obama, who arrived in a special black armored bus, didn’t announce any new ideas, but he repeated calls for pairing measures to tame the deficit with efforts to boost the economy.

And he went after Congress for failing to compromise over measures to do both.

“You’ve got to send a message to Washington that it’s time for the games to stop. It’s time to put country first,” Obama said, his voice rising. “Some folks in Congress ... would rather see their opponents lose than America win.”

The town hall — and several more events in Iowa and Illinois this week — set the stage for battles over the economy and the budget coming this fall.

Describing a litany of unexpected shocks to the economy — from the earthquake in Japan to the unrest in the Middle East — Obama repeated his call for extending a two- percentage-point cut in the payroll tax when it expires at the end of this year.

He called on Congress to pass measures to hire construction workers, a trio of trade bills, an overhaul of patent laws and new tax credits to spur new jobs for veterans.

“We’re not growing as fast as we need to, to drive down the unemployment rate,” Obama said.

Obama is considering whether to announce new initiatives to spur the economy, such as a tax credit to boost hiring or more investments in clean technology.

Speaking about the national debt, Obama called for an overhaul of the tax code that would force the wealthy to pay more taxes and an overhaul of entitlement programs.

Responding to a question by a lung cancer survivor worried about changes to Social Security and Medicare, Obama said that he wants to preserve the programs but that he is “frustrated” by Democrats who sometimes say “you can’t make changes to any government programs.”

Obama’s bus tour is taking him to relatively prosperous areas of the region, with unemployment less than the 9.1 percent national average.

After Cannon Falls, Obama is headed to Decorah, Iowa. On Tuesday, he’ll host a rural economic forum at Northeastern Iowa Area Community College in Peosta. Then, on Wednesday, he’ll head to western Illinois to host town halls in Atkinson and Alpha.

Before the event, audience members gave an upbeat appraisal of Obama’s record on jobs, though some said they want him to push even more for taxing the rich.

“I’d like to see the ultra-rich pay their fair share,” said Ryan Zimmer, a nurse from Rochester. “He’s got to be a politician, but I’d like to see a bit more push.”

“I think he’s doing a good job. He inherited a very big deficit,” said Bob Sixta, a financial planner from Rochester. “He and Michelle are the first residents of the White House to be familiar with both organic food and leftovers.”

“What I see in Washington is a failure of people to come together,” said Patricia Anderson, president of the Cannon Falls Chamber of Commerce.

About 500 people attended the event. Obama is scheduled to go on a 10-day family vacation to Martha’s Vineyard on Thursday after completing the economic tour.

According to local press accounts, Calvin Coolidge was the last president to come to Cannon Falls. The year was 1928.

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